We will look back on 2012 as the time when Americans put “freedom” back into “religious freedom.” For decades, religious freedom meant the freedom to use one’s religious beliefs to discriminate against others. Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year.” The damage was self-inflicted.
The Irish know how this works. When Protestants decided they alone knew the truth, they decreed Irish Catholics had to convert. First they first sent their preachers. But the English clergymen didn’t speak the language of the Irish, i.e. Gaelic. Their efforts were, therefore, unpersuasive. Having failed in the pulpit, Protestants then turned to government. Protestant politicians, eager to pander to the majority, used government to assure religious affiliation. They passed laws making it difficult to remain a Catholic. Civil rights afforded Protestants were denied to those who understood God differently.
That failed strategy proved irresistible in America. First, clergy failed to make their case on social issues in their preaching. So they hired lobbyists, formed political action committees and made an end run around their parishioners, going instead to legislators. Having lost the authority of the pulpit they moved the battlefield on same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception and other issues from the church into the political arena.
For a long while the strategy was successful. Legislators enacted laws imposing one narrow set of religious beliefs on those who did not share them. They read the Bible and understood God in one way and had the votes to force their interpretation on everyone.
That changed on November 6, 2012. On Election Day there was a seismic shift in the definition of religious freedom. The voters decided it was time that religious freedom was not about oppression. Each American should be permitted to believe and practice her or his relationship with God, as they understand it. They chose religious freedom over religious tyranny.
For starters, one of the decisive issues in the presidential contest was the candidates’ competing views on a woman’s right to choose. Two senate candidates who were initially expected to win ended up losing when they said the government should make a woman’s decision and the voters chose personal choice. The party that made access to contraception an issue fell far short.
One of the clearest indications voters extended religious freedoms came on same-sex marriage. Devout people of all faiths find themselves on both sides. But those who oppose marriage equality turned a civil rights issue into a political circus. For a time they were able to use the ballot box and state and federal lawmakers to discriminate and oppress others.
Last month three more states joined several others in deciding to stop using a questionable Biblical interpretation to deny marriage rights to gays and lesbians. Voters had no problem with how some folks interpreted the Bible. But they’d had their fill of one interpretation becoming the law of the land. What Professor Worthen called, “Christianity’s historic right to police the boundary between secular principles and religious beliefs” came to an end.
Wisconsin voters elected an openly lesbian woman to the U.S. Senate. Colorado elected a gay man to be the Speaker of the House. All of this means gay rights will never again be a wedge issue.
The most promising sign for those who believe in the freedom of religion was the fact that Romney’s Mormon faith was never an issue as Catholicism was for Kennedy. A close second was the marginalization of the “religious right.” The Republican Party is engaged in soul-searching about what went wrong on their journey to the White House. Many are coming to the realization that Americans have little or no patience for using the political process as a religious hammer.
Rightwing religionists will play the victim, feeling martyred and claiming the nation will be judged. But fewer Americans are willing to listen and that’s a victory for religious freedom.