by Troy Williams
This afternoon, seeking shelter from the winter storm, I went with friends to see Lincoln. The film was inspiring. It reminded me how great we can be as a nation when we have the courage to overcome our worst impulses. It’s impossible to watch without drawing parallels between Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery and the political struggles of contemporary times. And while I recognize there are vast differences in ending slavery and say the current struggle of obtaining full civil equality for LGBT Americans, I can’t help but draw strength from the historical narrative. The past helps us confront the challenges of our present.
Case in point. Two weeks ago I spent a half hour up at the Utah Capitol Building with my old mentor and conservative culture warrior, Gayle Ruzika. I jokingly told her that if she supported a statewide LGBT non-discrimination bill that I would give her my VIP tickets to the next Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert.
She didn’t budge.
Gayle is committed to protecting her religious freedom. She told me that if she owned a religious bookstore she wants the freedom to fire a gay employee. But she did have the caveat that if she ever owned a clothing store she would for sure keep me! She’s just so kind.
Unfortunately, this unelected lobbyist has great sway amongst Utah’s elected officials. And she can strike great fear in their hearts. She can invoke an angry god whose wrath is kindling against a perverse nation. She can proclaim that if gays are ever equal then the very freedoms religionists enjoy will be obliterated. There can be no compromise. The issue of religious freedom and LGBT equality must remain forever at odds.
As the New Pornographers aptly observed, “now it’s my rights versus yours.”
But can the two be reconciled? Religious organizations don’t want to be sued if they refuse to perform gay marriages, or allow gay adoptions. I get it. I just have a hard time accepting why a decent human being want to discriminate in the first place. Can you imagine in 2013 a Church fighting to maintain the freedom to outlaw black marriages? or even inter-racial marriages? Of course not. Any Church that advocated such a position would become a social pariah.
But that hasn’t always the case. Certainly not in Lincoln’s day. Religious ideology was the very rationale used to deny African-Americans the most basic human dignity. Pious believers argued zealously that God had created the Negro to be subservient. Today they argue that LGBT Americans must be denied access to the most basic of human institutions.
It is still legal in Utah and in many states to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We can be fired from our jobs and evicted from our apartments. There are protections for race, gender, age, ability and religious affiliation, but not so for sexuality. Again and again, “religious freedom” is being used as an excuse to justify ugly, exclusionary public policies.
Religions are terrified that if the Supreme Court strikes down both DOMA and Prop 8 they will be forced to marry gay people. They want exemptions. They want the freedom to discriminate.
Religions survive by crafting clear boundaries of In-group vs. Out-group. Good vs. evil. Pious vs. Deviant. White vs. Black. Man vs. Woman. Gay vs. Straight.
Geezus, these endless battles are exhausting!
And I don’t buy the religious freedom argument. I grew up in Mormonism. I can’t imagine Jesus, Nephi, Moroni or Joseph Smith ever advocating the right to exclude a marginalized population. They all understood persecution. They were the victims of discrimination and hatred. They endured violence at the hands of their oppressors. Even before the threat of swords, bullets and angry mobs, they all taught a message of love and peace.
Let the religiously fortified walls of bigotry fall.
There are some freedoms that should be forever lost to the dustbin of history; namely the freedom to discriminate and oppress.
It is an idea that is beautifully expressed in Tony Kushner’s screenplay of Lincoln. While contemplating the urgency to end a war and pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, the president argues,
“If we submit ourselves to law, even submit to losing freedoms, the freedom to oppress, for instance, we may discover other freedoms previously unknown to us.”
It’s an idea that we must seize and proclaim to every legislator, bishop, priest, rabbi and cardinal. Yield your freedom to oppress. Yield your xenophobia. Who knows? You may discover an opportunity to live the fullest expression of your faith.
You may discover that the blessings of equality, justice, inclusion and freedom may actually liberate us all.