Guest Post: Religious Freedom Should be Free for All

Guest Post by A.T.

A.T is a paraeducator, avid slow jogger, and mother of 2 who currently resides in California.

Photo credit: pikisuperstar via Freepik.

On nights when I just can’t fall asleep, sometimes I do a little waltz in my head. I imagine the steps as I breathe in time, steadied by the beat. Back, side, close. Forward, side, close. One, two, three. One and. Two and. Three. Even as I lay still, the perception of motion is soothing, like a baby being rocked to sleep. That kind of curative movement is harnessed in the spiritual notion of the dance of life. It’s a perspective that resonates with me so much more than the violent imagery of a battle between forces of good and evil. I prefer its joyful approach to navigating through opposition, to flow with the push and pull. To rise and fall with the tides and accept seasons of decay and rebirth. Precepts collected from a spectrum of wisdom traditions have braced my weary faith in a way that has allowed me to remain in the church for now, however tenuously. As I find insight in diverse perspectives, continually startled by how little I know, my curiosity within the church grows in tandem.

So I approached the last Sunday morning session of general conference with renewed openness and was rewarded with some elevating talks about resilience, forgiveness, and healing. Then came the dismay: a message about “religious freedom.” The phrase alone is charged with political baggage in the current social climate of American members and one that’s been co-opted to suggest a kind of freedom that’s just for Christians. Christian privilege, as my spouse calls it. And I can’t help but wonder, where was this latent indignation in defense of liberty at times of Muslim bans or violent attacks on synagogues and other places of worship? Where was this concern when hordes of members voted for someone who promised “Christian power” and courted neo-Nazis? Are we only engaged when it’s perceived to affect the church directly?

There was barely mention of non-Christian religions, especially those most targeted. It seemed to be a thinly veiled demand that our voices be heard over others. We can only guess what the speaker was referring to when he invoked a supposed silencing. Did he mean a silencing of the movement against preventing women from access to unbiased prenatal care in making what is likely the most excruciating medical decision of their lives? Was is about not having to bake cakes for, take photographs of, approve marriage licenses, or have to accept a therapy patient because of sexual orientation? Or maybe he meant the scores of folks desperate to preserve a false history of manifest destiny, no matter the costs? Maybe not. I’m left to wonder exactly what he meant and can only presume the connotation it’s taken on in the public discourse recently.

These last few years have shown how church leadership and even scripture can be subjectively interpreted in a multiplicity of ways, leaving bias to interfere with consensus. I’ve wrestled painfully to reconcile my understanding of these issues with that of the LDS majority, but constantly fumble. I’m convinced that the best approach in all things is Christ’s approach: not to coerce, legislate, or throw stones, but to simply love no matter what. To allow individuals to make choices without casting judgment. I think of a Christ who renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. A Christ who would rebuke stone-throwers, offer healing, and gently invite to do better. Not one that would discriminate against vast swathes of people based on their lifestyle or identity.

Clearly the church takes a defensive approach, despite institutional exemptions such as the ones regarding solemnization of same-sex marriages. And I can’t help but cringe when leaders and members play the persecuted. We may be seen as weird or lame for some of our habits, but in the U.S we’re a generally prosperous bunch. I live in one of the most liberal places in America, if not the world, and in no way do I feel like my religious freedom is vulnerable. In fact, it’s expanded to celebrate and protect expressions of other faiths, like the practice of Ramadan and the high holidays of Judaism. That kind of accommodation is true religious freedom. It’s not on defense, not seeking preservation of the status quo. It’s about allowing spirituality in all forms to flourish as opposed to denying the agency of others or deeming their choices a personal affront to one’s beliefs. And I’m a believer that exploring the truths of other faiths ultimately enhances our own.

Lately, I hear a refrain in the church warning members not to succumb to “secularism,” which seems to refer to this broadening of religiosity. It’s vague, but to my untrained ears I hear a reprimand of those who don’t use their belief in God as a shield for exclusion and blame. While I’m just as wary of the gospel of Glennon Doyle and her cult-of-self, there is an opposing secularism that’s steeped in the cultural fabric of the church. It’s a clearly traceable ideological legacy despite the church’s claims of political neutrality.

According to PEW research, about seventy percent of Americans identify as Christian–by far the majority. Approximately eighty-nine percent profess some belief in God. Hardly a secular minority. Where is the threat? This trend seems to reflect a people who feel they’ve been failed by religious institutions, alarmed by sex abuse scandals, decades of conversion therapy, and deeply racist histories. Instead of shaming dissenters for their assumed lack of faith or just insisting that they give up their doubts, what if religious institutions took some responsibility for losing the trust of their flocks? Any acknowledgement of past mistakes and some course correction of cultural biases could go a long way. Then again, it’s likely the notion that church leaders are infallible and will never lead us astray has painted them into a corner (kind of like that old MormonAd from the ‘80s).

When I mentally survey the growing list of family and friends who’ve left the church, they didn’t just laze away until all belief faded. They were daily scripture readers and pray-ers and stake leaders. They trod the covenant path with holy boots on the ground and carried burdens of doubt for years until finally their shelves, laden with unsettled questions, cratered beneath the load of cognitive dissonance. Most didn’t abandon all faith and give up on God. They simply realized that what was spoken over the pulpit and attitudes in the church didn’t align with the gospel they knew or the truths they held close.

And I can only speak for myself, but I sense that many of us are seeking a more expansive and restorative spirituality that embraces all the Good that surrounds us. One that is more concerned with caring for one another, than dictating the moral lives of others. We seek a deeper connection with divinity rather than a rigid, dogmatic, and even corporate rendering of the Christ’s gospel. Something more like Gregory Boyle’s radically loving, extravagantly tender, undefended heart spirituality; the kind that doesn’t mistake moral outrage for a moral compass (a detailed in his book, The Whole Language).

“If religion is not there to help with shaping character and mediating hard times, who will be? Who will teach honesty, gratitude, forgiveness, and patience? Who will exhibit charity, compassion, and kindness for the forgotten and the downtrodden?,” the general conference speaker concludes. Yes, religion is generally a benevolent force and I still find deep mines of good in the church. I love its core message of peace. But there are crusaders for truth and charity among us, regardless of religious affiliation.

So maybe there isn’t a mass crisis of faith after all. Maybe us black sheep haven’t completely lost our way, we’re just finally finding our rhythm.

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5 Responses

  1. Beth Young says:

    I completely agree. Completely. Completely. It’s a long story, but just know that back in 1997, I divorced myself from the notion that the brethren offer a path to Christ. I’ve observed them being corrupt, corporate shills, bent on clinging to the shallow, mythological stories from early church history. Bent on denying any wrongdoing regarding racism, sexism, violence, and financial abuse. There is no reason to keep following much of anything they teach. We are adults with brains, consciouses, guts, energy, ideas, and love. We can use that faith to directly connect with and abide with the Supreme Creators, thus rendering those who claim “authority over us” irrelevant. I love your post more than I can express. Bless you for sharing with us. Please know that you are not alone.

  2. Miriam says:

    Thanks for your post!

    When the first Muslim ban happened I was devastated. That was the first time I’d felt a threat to religious freedom in the US (and I definitely didn’t feel like it was a threat to my religious freedom). I have never been able to figure out why so many Mormons in the US feel that their religious freedom is being threatened. It is so proposterous! Thanks for putting words to my feelings.

    One time I was teaching a primary class with 11 year olds. It was back with the old manuals, but we were talking about olden time pioneers being persecuted and one of the suggestions was to ask the kids how they are persecuted for their religious now. It didn’t make any sense to compare their experiences to that of the early Saints to me. It was also the week of the Charlottesville/white supremacist incident. So my husband and I decided to read the church’s statement on white supremacy to talk about how people are persecuted today. Our class was all white kids. It made sense to us that if they lesson was on persecution to talk about actual persecution. Of course, parents complained that we were being too political in primary (for reading the church’s statement!). Members of the church have a strain of white fragility that is so unique and so utterly fragile. “White-mormon-fragility” is its own breed.

    And I love your final paragraph. I don’t feel like I’m having a faith crisis. I just feel like my faith takes me to a different place than others’ faith takes them.

  3. Katie Rich says:

    “Who will exhibit charity, compassion, and kindness for the forgotten and the downtrodden?” Such an interesting question, and you hit on so many points of the complicated way people answer. If the church seeks “religious freedom” to repeatedly secure its right to discriminate based on gender and sexual orientation, and people do not see this as an example of charity, compassion, and kindness, then the answer for them would not be that these principles are taught by the church. And in leaving the church, they may do so in order to seek affiliation with people or groups who do teach and live these principles. Some who leave may do so in order to live their faith, not leave their faith. Amen.


    “They trod the covenant path with holy boots on the ground and carried burdens of doubt for years until finally their shelves, laden with unsettled questions, cratered beneath the load of cognitive dissonance. Most didn’t abandon all faith and give up on God. They simply realized that what was spoken over the pulpit and attitudes in the church didn’t align with the gospel they knew or the truths they held close.”

    Holy boots on the ground. Perfect perfect. And I hope the trend is shifting towards more prone realizing or shining this instead of the lazy/sinful narrative that’s been so prevalent.

  5. The term “Christian privilege” substitutes so well for the ill-named call for “religious freedom.” Love this!

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