By Jonathan Shuffield
Religion – it can be a tricky thing. It has the ability to offer comfort, to provide answers in a world filled with endless questions, and even furnish an anchor of sorts bestowing a sense of purpose. There is a danger to subscribing to any system offering absolutes. When we feel as though we hold an answer without room for question; arrogance, judgment and entitlement are easily bred.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I hold no issue with a need for rules and order and even beliefs. I grew up immersed in wooden pews and dusty hymnals. I found great comfort in the ceremony and atmosphere held in those sanctuaries. As a matter of fact, I come from three generations of pulpit pounding Baptist ministers and I was supposed to be the fourth. I came close. I was a youth pastor and even a Christian singer complete with an album and everything. I say this not to talk about my spiritual path, but to provide some credentials for the rest of this article.
The term “religious liberties” seems to be this season’s hottest accessory. A majority of the conservative right would not fathom leaving home without it wrapped around themselves like a cashmere scarf. It isn’t new, like most fashion, it has just found its revival. As the fight for LGBT rights has picked up more steam over the past decade, “religious liberties” have become the must have argument.
In Arkansas, it was used to push through a law referred to as the anti-anti-discrimination bill – a bill that, in effect, allows discrimination of LGBT people by banning the use of local anti-discrimination laws, stating that cities cannot “exceed state laws” in protecting people from discrimination. Since on a state level Arkansas does not have protections for LGBT people, then even more progressive cities in Arkansas have their hands tied in protecting the LGBT community. A version of this bill was vetoed by Arizona’s governor last year, but many other states have bills such as this on their agendas.
Then there is Tennessee where they recently passed the “Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act” which would take away any boundaries a school could set for appropriate behavior. In essence a student could stand in class and profess his belief that gay people will go to hell and be spared from reprimand by the protection of their religious viewpoint. In the same token, a student could profess and elaborate on their worship of Satan as well. It isn’t about the already set protections for religious freedom, it broadens the law to allow for a belief system to be “shoved down” another’s throat in such a way that would typically be considered harassment, but instead in Tennessee is a protected behavior. It is state sanctioned bullying to be quite blunt.
Now follow me back to 2006, where I sat in my primary care doctor’s exam room surrounded by pictures of religious figures and scripture. He had been my doctor for three years, knew my medical history and I trusted him with my life. I had never officially “come out” to him as there had never been a need. On this particular visit, the subject presented itself and without a second thought I revealed an incidental fact: I was gay.
In that moment I was subjected to a lecture as to how he was very sorry but due to his religious beliefs he could not address my issue and questions. I was dumbfounded, I simply had presented a concern that could happen to anyone, gay or straight, but since he had learned in that moment of my sexuality I was no longer a worthy patient. I remember sitting in my car in tears, I did not understand and I felt helpless. In one swift moment he had made me feel less than human and he felt justified due to his “deeply held religious beliefs.”
What makes one human being better than another? Why do the belief systems of one group override that of all? I have been perplexed since that day some short decade ago and I continue to be perplexed with every passing law and argument. Isn’t the point of freedom that there is a place for everyone? Isn’t the true measure of a man, a society, based on how the majority treats the minority? I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the dominant religion lost its footing and found itself lower on the totem pole. I can tell you that they better hope for more grace than they have proven to offer others.
The saddest part is that the majority and most heinous offenders seem to speak much louder than the ones who truly understand the meanings and doctrines of their religion. Until we can learn as a society to have grace for our differences we are doomed to destroy ourselves. Until we can see another and not have the burning need to make their path match our own, we will never find peace.
In the words of Rumi, “Outside the realm of wrongdoing and right-doing lies a field. I shall meet you there.” Just a side note, Rumi was Muslim.