Freedom of religion

Update, December 31, 2019: In a New York Times op-ed, Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson embrace a term ‘religious privilege’ for what I describe here as evangelical Protestants’ claim to religious freedom rights that impede other human rights. They define the term as referring to “the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.”[1] I hesitate, more from instinct than any articulable reason, to adopt this term myself though it appears apt.

Notably, their definition includes important elements: The ‘privileged’ sects are arbitrary, but typically “conservative and authoritarian,”[2] for which we may reasonably read conservative Christian, a term which also includes Roman Catholicism. The latter is typically represented by traditionalist rather than by social conservatism in my scheme of conservative tendencies, but they share considerable ideological ground.[3] They refer to this ‘freedom’ as being “to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power,”[4] which is substantially consistent with my view that they seek to constrain the human rights of others.


Social conservatives (mostly evangelical Protestants) are particularly prone to the belief that they are being persecuted for their religion.

A huge problem here is that evangelism intrudes on other people’s beliefs or absence thereof. It is explicitly about proselytizing, spreading an evangelist’s faith.[5] Which means that for an evangelist, “freedom of religion” means the freedom to impose it on other people.

As with prayer in schools and in other official spaces. As with abortion clinic blockades. As with refusing to bake cakes for same-sex marriages. As with censorship, including book burnings at local public libraries. As with refusing to perform official duties like issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

Each of those acts is an intrusion by the evangelist into other people’s faith or absence thereof. The evangelist asserts his or her own faith over the rights of other people and, by communicating that faith, attempts to shame those other people into adopting the evangelist’s faith. And when courts rule against evangelists in such cases, the evangelists cry foul. It is not other people’s freedom of religion that requires protection, but only their own.

It indeed seems unlikely many evangelists would be willing to reciprocate, perhaps by allowing a Muslim call to prayer to drown out a street preacher. Or by allowing Satanists to blockade the abortion clinic blockade. Which is half-way to the point I want to make here: The evangelical claim demands that society permit at least some religions to proselytize. Which implies that society must decide what ‘religions’ will be recognized, at least for proselytization purposes.

Which means that adherents of some, state-recognized ‘religions’ will be permitted to impose their own beliefs on others because the rights of those religions supersede other people’s human rights.

This, by the way, is the same logic by which Zionists assert a biblical claim to Palestine. Their “rights” supersede Palestinian rights because they claim a god, whose existence cannot be confirmed, gave them that land some number of millennia ago.

Accordingly, I shall declare that I am the adherent of a religion and that my god awarded me one billion dollars of Jeff Bezos’ money. My god’s existence can’t be verified either. But hey, that passage is my scripture. Cough it up, Jeff.

“But wait,” Jeff might reply. “Whatever I think of Palestinian rights, Jews have a legitimate religion. You can’t just pull some article of faith out of your ass,” he could continue, “and claim my money.”

Why not? Really! Why not? Is the Zionist claim any better established?

And this is the problem. The reason the Zionist claim enjoys any “legitimacy” whatsoever is that some states have recognized not merely Judaism, but a flavor of it, Zionism, which asserts a claim on Palestinian land. The state thus has taken on the business of picking and choosing which religions will be considered ‘legitimate’ and by that means, denies Palestinians their land and my claim to Bezos’ money.

So let’s say I’m a Quaker. I’m sitting quietly in a building that has been opened to the public for a meeting with fellow “friends.” An evangelist bursts in and disrupts our silence, claiming we are insufficiently biblical.

I am not actually a Quaker. I don’t know how Quakers might respond in such a situation. And that isn’t really the point.

The point really is, how is it that the evangelists’ right to proselytize comes to supersede my right to worship according to my own beliefs? Why is it that the evangelist has “freedom of religion” and I do not?

And even more profoundly, how is it that the state, which allegedly guarantees freedom of religion,[6] decides that the evangelist’s religion may supersede my own?

The evangelist’s claim to a right to proselytize inherently intrudes on other people’s rights. There is no middle ground here. Even if we gave evangelicals their own country, they would feel compelled, by the fact of their belief, to come to our country to “spread the word.” So when we attempt to impose limits on their proselytization, so as to protect other people’s rights, we are inherently impeding their freedom of religion. “Persecution” is thus inherent to the evangelical condition and, uncorroborated by other evidence, the evangelical claim of “persecution” cannot justify action.

I don’t know how others reach a similar conclusion. I am simply aware that they do: “Freedom of religion” necessarily implies freedom from religion, especially including proselytization, which means, especially including evangelism.

In the meantime, Jeff, feel free to send that check to my address, here. You don’t even have to convert.

  1. [1]Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, “Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell,” New York Times, December 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/29/opinion/william-barr-trump.html
  2. [2]Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, “Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell,” New York Times, December 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/29/opinion/william-barr-trump.html
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  4. [4]Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, “Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell,” New York Times, December 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/29/opinion/william-barr-trump.html
  5. [5]Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Baile, “After Trump and Moore, some evangelicals are finding their own label too toxic to use,” Washington Post, December 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/after-trump-and-moore-some-evangelicals-are-finding-their-own-label-too-toxic-to-use/2017/12/14/b034034c-e020-11e7-89e8-edec16379010_story.html
  6. [6]U.S. Const. amend. I.

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