The Universal Notebook: Too much religious freedom?

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When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, there was a great deal of concern about his religion. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic and some people feared that he would pursue a Catholic agenda and take orders from the Pope.

Back then, most Americans seemed to understand that, while one’s religion naturally informs one’s decisions, it is entirely inappropriate for an elected official to force his or her values and religious views into public policy.

Ah, the good old days.

These days, this country sometimes seems headed down a dead-end road to theocracy led by a man without any meaningful religious practice at all.

Some of my friends blame the hypocrisy of fundamentalist Christians for the election of Donald Trump. Trump is an unchurched libertine, but because he saw the political advantage of changing his stance on abortion from pro to anti, the evangelicals voted for him over the she-devil Hillary, or so the reasoning goes.

I have conservative southern Christians in my family and they told me before the election they would never vote for Trump, so I’m not quite as ready to blame Christian conservatives for the curse of Trump in the White House.

As I see it, all religions are manifestations of the same human hunger for the divine and take myriad forms depending on geography, culture, history and personality. The idea that one religion – or more incredibly, one sect – might have a lock on the truth while all others are wrong is preposterous. That means religious tolerance is a dilemma for me, because I cannot tolerate the intolerance of other denominations and other religions.

As a liberal Christian I want all people to be free to practice their own religions, but I don’t want them to force their views on the general public. When you try to make your personal religious beliefs a matter of public policy, insisting that non-believers live by your faith, that is simply intolerable.

That’s what Vice President Mike Pence does. That’s what “Christians” do when they try, for example, to defund Planned Parenthood, hoping to deny reproductive health-care services to others because they do not approve of sex education, contraception or abortion.

True believers are a truly frightening lot because they essentially believe their group is going to heaven and everyone else is going to hell. That’s wrong whether it’s coming from Muslim extremists or Christian evangelicals. But it is that smug certainty that makes religious fundamentalists feel justified in forcing their religious convictions on others.

We saw that during the debates in Maine over same-sex marriage, when religious leaders who were in no way affected by marriage equality led the opposition to it.

Now we see the imposition of religious views on the public life of America in the increasing political clout of the Christian right, in an era – and an administration – friendly to narrow-minded intolerance.

With its wrong-headed 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all a business owner need do is cite religious objections if he (and it is almost always a he) does not want his company’s health insurance to cover contraception – and possibly anything else a fundamentalist might find objectionable such as psychiatric counseling, stem cell therapies or even blood transfusions – for employees.

Back in February, pandering to his Christian conservative base, Trump promised to “destroy” the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the U.S. tax code, which prohibits tax-exempt churches from endorsing political candidates. He tried to do so with an executive order on May 4 directing the executive branch not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, but since the amendment isn’t enforced anyway, Trump’s order is not likely to have much of an effect.

Now Trump and Betsy DeVos, his secretary of education, are busy pushing a public school voucher plan that would allow families to spend taxpayer money to send their kids to religious schools. In a recent study of the voucher system in Mike Pence’s Indiana, entitled “The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers,” National Public Radio found that more than half the students getting taxpayer money to go to Christian schools never attended public school in the first place. That created a $53 million deficit, the state had no say over course content in the Christian schools supported by public tax dollars, and these Christian schools discriminated against students with special needs.

So Hobby Lobby gave conservative Christians the freedom to discriminate against employees. Trump’s executive order on the Johnson Amendment tried to give conservative Christians the freedom to pontificate, essentially giving campaign speeches from the pulpit. And Betsy DeVos’ voucher plan will give conservative Christians the freedom to indoctrinate their kids at taxpayer expense.

That may be too much religious freedom for one country.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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