“Religious freedom isn’t just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern, or a humanist concern. It’s all of our concern; it is everyone’s concern.” – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
Yes, you should be very concerned. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is moving a faith-based agenda that paints his and his like-minded colleagues’ brand of Christianity as targets of oppression. This is part of a strategy to form alliances in parts of the world where the Trump administration is looking to amass or hold on to waning imperial power (the Middle East, Asia, South America, etc.) As I read through the transcripts and materials for the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (a gathering to which I would be surprised if any Unitarian Universalists or publicly pro-LGBTQ faith leaders were invited) some of the prominent names say it all: Secretary Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), as well as journalists, Raymond Arroyo, David Brody, Hugh Hewitt, Pete Mundo. All conservative, all male, all white. I genuinely have nothing against conservative white men; I just don’t think that they should be the only flavor leading or shaping the narrative in a conversation about global faith and freedom particularly when the United States is steadily retreating from hard earned liberties such as access to contraception, HIV prevention, women’s right to choose, transgender rights, migrant rights, anti-racism, etc. In the materials that appear online, I see no appetite to address the ways in which religion is used globally to justify rape, execution of sexual minorities and actual genocide. Pompeo’s religious altruism is a political MacGuffin.
Contrary to the narrative of certain state legislatures, Christianity in the United States is not under attack. But it is, through its own organizational and institutional failings, increasingly unpopular and sometimes downright harmful, like many religious institutions in our country. Centuries of unchecked power, prosperity gospel gone haywire, child molestation, pastor sexual assaults, justification of every kind of narrow-minded marginalization and otherization based on highly limited readings of Biblical scripture…Christianity has done itself no favors in the last 50 – 100 years while the world has changed, gotten significantly smaller, more literate and smarter. At the same time there are also people who identify publicly as Christians who are working hard to evolve the faith and keep it from sliding entirely off the edge and into the sewer of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. People like Yvette Flunder, Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Traci Blackmon and William Barber. These are leaders I encounter and admire at gatherings like the Wild Goose Festival where people convene to celebrate Christianity in the context of spiritual, cultural and even emotional diversity. And this is the important difference, in this setting, the goal is to be Christians in the world before regarding the world as an inherently anti-Christian adversary.
Of course, it is not really fair to compare the two gatherings, but they present such a stark contrast, each with a goal of creating a community of tolerance. But “tolerance” is a problematic goal, particularly in a world shrunken and made potentially more lethal by technology. We must enter into an entirely new relationship with our differences that acknowledges and creates space for both Mike Pompeo and me (a gay, black minister who believes in open borders) to be in relationship. Mike Pompeo has every right in his personal world (and small mind) to believe that I am a Godless abomination. I don’t need him to like me, but I need him to acknowledge and in no way obstruct the fact that I exist. Moreover, he does not have any right to present his personal beliefs as the blueprint for an international policy agenda in my name.
“Belief is not the price of admission to civil rights.”
Here is the challenge: how to provide room for opposing beliefs and create unified government and peace. This was the conundrum that faced the architects of the American Revolution. In 1786, the Virginia Assembly adopted the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom (1786). Its author, Thomas Jefferson, prior to becoming our first Secretary of State wrote:
[Be it enacted by the General Assembly] that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
These words are the precursor to the first amendment of the US Constitution. Jefferson was a deeply conflicted man, culturally and politically, but on religion he is clear: belief is not the price of admission to civil rights.
I am convinced that our modern solution is not to be concerned with “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” (particularly as co-opted by religious conservatives) but rather to work toward Religious Equity: an intentional and explicit balance between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Religious Equity, in the context of the United States, could function as a framework to strengthen the original intent of the Constitutional right to freedom of religion while providing a basis for that intent to evolve with an increasing spiritual diversity of the population that was unknown to the “founding fathers.” In addition, it would acknowledge a place and role for clearly defined secularism in our society. If I could put it in a “declaration” of my own it would read something like this:
To affirm that beliefs about “being” expressed or held as religion, faith, spirituality, non-religion, etc. intersect with how our human society is formed and how it functions. Acknowledging also that because of this intersection and because of our shared humanity, we are obliged to create social systems and relationships whereby the full and evolving diversity of beliefs may co-exist/ whether those beliefs are in concert or in dissonance. Concurrently we must protect and defend the right of all existing beings of free and independent will and conscience to believe or not believe according to their self-determined autonomy without threat of harm or restriction to the secular liberties of one another.
Pompeo may drop the word “humanist” here and there, but his actions indicate that he is not concerned with Humanists, or sexual minorities, tribal societies threatened by climate change, or the majority of women who suffer globally at the hands of religion (marital rape, genital mutilation, etc.) He is only concerned with an agenda that creates a welcoming environment for a specific brand of conservative Christianity and builds alliances that can be leveraged for political purposes. Religious “freedom” cannot be a mask for an agenda of faith based imperialism. We must not validate a global politics based on religion by simply being asleep at the wheel. Rather we would do better to intentionally embrace Religious Equity as an ethical position to support work in the world that ensures both freedom of belief and freedom to disavow belief ultimately freeing us all to defend the secular right to exist in peace.