Two Concepts of “Religious Freedom”

Another to-do over “marriage equality” in Utah, where I reside. One paper’s coverage of the event can be seen here. The organizers claim to be acting in defense of “religious freedom.”

But only in a Puritan sense.

Centuries ago, Puritans and Separatists from England settled in what would become New England seeking “religious freedom.” But not in the strict sense. Their concept of religious liberty entailed the freedom to establish faith communities of their own. Their legal code strongly favored one faith group over others, they lived under the rule of quasi-dictatorial theocratic oligarchies, and their mini-states meted out harsh punishments (including whippings, banishment, and execution) to those preaching alternative doctrine or otherwise living according to their own religious dictates.  This was their concept of “religious freedom,” the freedom to establish such a society, by their rules–and then to be left alone.  To Puritan New Englanders, “religious freedom” was not equivalent to religious toleration or free religious speech or anything of the like. It wasn’t even in the same vicinity. No: it was the freedom to have others–the English monarch, the Anglican Church, non-Puritans, etc.–mind their own business and let them arrange their faith community their way.

What I’m hearing from many so-called conservatives today reminds me, to some degree, of this more antiquated version of religious liberty. When Utah Sen. Stuart Reid (R-Ogden) talks about “religious freedom,” he doesn’t appear to be referring to the freedom for all to practice their religion as they see fit. How could he be, when he seeks to disallow so-called “gay marriages”? It appears, rather, that he would use the coercive power of the state (just as so many “gay-rights” activists do) to force any gay person in Utah to adhere to his religious standards. Never mind that if Gay Person A and Gay Person B decide to get “married,” it in no way harms him or his property–no, they must be prohibited from such an act (and damn whatever their faith convictions might be) by the power of the cage and the gun. How very Puritan.

I don’t understand how this is “religious liberty.”

Granting the state the authority to “define” marriage is, I think, incredibly misguided and short-sighted. Why would anyone–especially in Utah, where the majority of the population is Mormon–hand this tremendous authority over to a monopolistic, coercive entity like the state? It may be all well and good as long as your definition wins out–but for how long? What happens when the other side wins out down the road? You’ve handed the keys over, you’ve authorized the state to define marriage, you’ve given up long-term “religious liberty” for the sake of potential short-term gain over your adversaries.

Of all people, Mormons should know better. After all, it was the U.S. government’s arrogation unto itself of the power to define marriage that led to years of bitter struggle between the Mormons in the West and the Republican regimes of the east. Indeed, polygamy was identified by said party as one of the “twin relics of barbarism” (the other being slavery), and by the time Mormons had been forced to give up the practice, they’d endured the seizure of their property, the freezing of Church assets, the snooping of federal agents, the imprisonment of their men, the loss of their franchise, the fugitive status of their leaders, and literal invasion. You’d think the Mormons would be the last people to hand over to any government the right to define marriage. Indeed, the old “Mormon Creed,” for decades, was this beautiful sentiment: “Mind your own business.”

Can you imagine?

“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (AoF 11)

Joseph Smith was on to something when he wrote this. And that last bit makes all the difference. We do claim the privilege to worship as we see fit. To those who wish to curtail our ability to worship, I say, “Mind your own business.” But–and maybe in the grand scheme of things this is far more important–we also allow all men (all men) the same privilege. They can worship however they wish, wherever they wish, and whatever they wish. As long as they aren’t infringing upon my worship (or injuring me or my property), I have zero right to interfere. If two gay people decide their love is real and want to get “married,” how can I possibly tell them they can’t? Personally I wouldn’t consider their union a “marriage,” but that doesn’t mean I’d go crawling to the coercive, corrupt, violent state begging for a law to punish them. This is immoral. “Let them worship how, where, or what they may.” “Mind your own business.” Say what you will, as Sen. Reid did, about community and society and culture; force is still force, coercion is still coercion, and the threat of violence (extortion, the cage, the gun) against a non-criminal is still immoral. Reid is right to want to protect citizens’ ability to privately discriminate, as in the case of a business owner denying some wedding service to a gay couple; it’s their business, their property, their right, and the government can’t force them (by threat of violence) to comply with some (ultimately arbitrary) value system that happens to be the flavor of the month in DC or SLC. But striving to make illegal so-called gay “marriage,” and using the power of the state to do so, only puts Reid in the same philosophical camp as his statist “gay-rights” opponents.

Joseph Smith’s understanding of religious liberty obviously entailed far more than the mere freedom to establish special faith communities with their own rules, as the Puritans did. His was a more far-reaching concept, and it did involve toleration, and it didn’t involve force. Please, support traditional marriage–but using persuasion, long-suffering, and love, not the guns of government. And when “gay-rights” proponents try to use the state to impose their faith system on those not of their “faith,” the criticism should be the same.

The only long-term solution (and the only liberty solution, using Joseph Smith’s definition as opposed to the Puritan one) is to get government out of marriage entirely. Obviously.

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