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The Chasm of the Middle Ground

We who fight against bigotry and for human rights do so because we believe that a more just, more peaceful, more compassionate society benefits everyone. Prejudice is irrational by definition, a blind and maddened serpent; you never know who it will strike at next, and the oppressors and the oppressed have changed places many times in history. Therefore, the only rational conclusion is that I should support equal rights for everyone no matter what groups I belong to, not just because I can imagine myself in an oppressed person’s place, but also from the Rawlsian logic that this will protect me as well if I should ever be in their place.

But this isn’t how religious fundamentalists view the world. The representatives of each sect see themselves as the sole repository of wisdom and truth, and all outsiders as misguided at best, evil and malicious at worst. Worse, most of them hold firmly to the theocratic, medieval mindset that God means them and them alone to rule, and there’s no reason to share power with others or plan for any other outcome. To people with this mindset, there’s no middle ground and no possibility of compromise.

We saw this in the fights over the American health-care bill, where Roman Catholic bishops asserted that any employer – not just a church employer, but any employer, even the manager of a Taco Bell – should be able to deny his employees insurance coverage for any medical procedure to which he objects on religious grounds. Since most major medical procedures are ruinously expensive if not covered by insurance, this is equivalent to saying that employers should be able to dictate their workers’ access to medical care. In the same vein, when there was a rash of teenagers committing suicide after vicious homophobic bullying, evangelicals in the Anoka-Hennepin School District vehemently objected to a proposed anti-bullying policy, claiming that it was an unconstitutional restriction on their religious freedom. Evangelical spokespeople have also explicitly endorsed this logic, that “if gays are not the ones being discriminated against, then Christians will be“.

I don’t know exactly when this shift happened. It used to be that America’s most influential religious leaders had at least some other identifiable priorities: feeding the poor, promoting interfaith tolerance, things like that. But sometime in the last few decades, their collective worldview has changed, and those things were left by the wayside. Today, what they want most of all, what they stand for above everything else, is the right to discriminate – the freedom to hate, and to treat people unequally as long as that hate comes from religion. Religious bigotry, apparently, is supposed to be more acceptable than someone who hates women, gays, blacks or Jews for entirely secular reasons.

The worldview that grows from this soil, the worldview of the bishops and the fundamentalists, is that human rights are zero-sum: any gain in the rights of a marginalized group can be achieved only by taking rights away from someone else. If the government doesn’t show favoritism to their sect, that’s not because the government is religiously neutral, but because it’s showing favoritism to atheists. If the government makes it easier for women to get birth control, that’s a violation of their freedom to prevent women from using birth control. If same-sex couples are allowed to marry, that freedom must come at the expense, somehow, of some right being lost by opposite-sex couples. (Lately we’ve been seeing a new permutation, which is that churches which object to same-sex marriage worry they’ll lose the right not to perform it. Since no church in the history of America has ever been compelled to perform a marriage ceremony in violation of its theological beliefs, this seems an unlikely fear – and why does that justify keeping it illegal for everyone?)

The concept that’s slipped out of their worldview is peaceful coexistence; they’ve lost the ability to conceive of people of different beliefs living side by side without one group imposing their will on the other. This also explains why they react in such a hysterical, disproportionate manner to criticism: in their eyes, if we say even a word against them, it must mean that our ultimate goal is to make it illegal for anyone to believe as they do. (What does it say about their own goals that they so readily believe this of others? I leave that up to you.)

What the churches fear most of all is that if the world changes and they stay the same, people will come to look down on them as archaic, bigoted and irrational, and won’t want anything to do with them. And they’re absolutely right to fear this. But rather than taking the obvious response – revising their morality so that it no longer is archaic, bigoted and irrational – their plan is to prevent anything from ever changing again, to fossilize our morality exactly as it is, so no one can say that religion is out of step with the times. This is a battle they’re bound to lose; the only questions are how long they can drag it out and how much harm they’ll do in the meantime.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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