Saturday, August 15, 2015

Freedom of, and from, religion ....

Among the oddities of this American life --- when the history of the current struggle for "religious freedom" among some Christians is written, the martyrs will be men and women who declined to bake cakes or arrange flowers for same-sex couples, or to issue marriage licenses, or to provide venues. My goodness.

This came to mind yesterday while reviewing the collect and lessons put forward by the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music as appropriate for daily office use on Aug. 14, the date seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels was shot and killed during 1965 in Huntsville, Alabama, while shielding a fellow civil rights worker.

Daniels' name is among those of 40 civil rights martyrs inscribed on the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, commencing with the Rev. George Lee, murdered in Belzoni, Mississippi on May 7, 1955, because of his refusal to cease voter registration efforts and concluding with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

That memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Thinking back, I'm amazed at how oblivious I and many others were to all of this --- and how remote in overwhelmingly white and insular Iowa the civil rights struggle of those years seemed. I was preparing to return to Iowa City for my sophomore year during the summer of 1965; fussing as graduation neared about Vietnam and the looming draft during April of 1968.

I'd never known a black person --- or for that matter anyone who was anything other than white, Christian and presumed to be straight ---  until enrolling at the University of Iowa.


It's necessary to be careful when drawing parallels between the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, which continue, and the fight for LGBT equality. 

Racism is woven into the fabric of America and has proved far more deadly to a far greater number of people than what we call homophobia --- and in the long run probably will be more difficult to root out and neutralize.

But there are similarities, founded as the SPLC phrases it when defining "hate groups" on the impulse to "attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics."

The black church and many from the progressive predominately white church were leaders in the civil rights struggle. Many religious people and religious leaders are at the forefront of the drive toward equality today.

But the impulse toward hate that was at work in many conservative denominations during the harsh early days of the civil rights movement still is at work in a significant segment of the church --- as witness the cake-baking martyrs and demeaning language about gay people favored today by many religious leaders.

Freedom to exercise that dubious privilege is granted to religious groups under the Constitution. But it needs to stop at the church door.

The religion clause of the First Amendment is there to protect religious groups, no matter how quirky they may be. But of equal importance, it's there to protect society from the church and its too frequent resistance to freedom and justice.

Additionally --- although both subgroups should know better, the percentage of racists among the gay population probably is similar to the percentage among straight folks just as the percentage of homophobes among black folks is similar to that among the white population. Go figure.

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