What they mean when they say “religious freedom”

This December, I went back to the town I grew up in for a brief visit. While there, I noticed a bunch of signs like the one above. They confused me at first, considering that I know the town to be nearly exclusively members of the US’s dominant religious group, Christians, and not terribly invested in the concerns of religious minorities. However, it was obvious enough to me even at the time that this must be about some perceived threat against Christianity, though as-of-yet unspecified.

In the past couple of months, this threat has been elaborated on by numerous state legislatures who have introduced bills claiming to protect the “religious liberty” or “religious freedom” of citizens in the state. Indeed, as I am writing the news has just come in that Arizona governor Jane Brewer has vetoed a bill that passed in that state’s legislature. The myriad headlines provide some indication of the way that this bill has been reported on in the media and demonstrates that the phrases “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” and the ideology that supports them are not wholly accepted (or for that matter wholly dismissed) by various media outlets. Note in the image below the presence of scare quotes around religious freedom for some outlets but not others. Also note the presence or absence or mention of homosexuals, including Yahoo! News‘ characterization of the bill as anti-gay and one NBC channel’s reflection of this accusation using scare quotes.


I would be far from the first to suggest that this notion of “religious liberty” is not what it might sound like (see, for example, this, this, this, or this). I hope, however, to offer a fresh perspective by taking a close look at the language that one of these bills’ supporters has used to explain the notion. In particular, I analyzed Governor Bobby Jindal‘s (of Louisiana) recent speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library on that subject.

Jindal is not known for impressive public speaking, but the speech certainly employs language in a way that is rhetorically moving. More importantly, I also believe it represents a clear and extensive articulation of the “religious freedom” discourse from an influential figure within the conservative movement. The question I found myself asking, while initially reading, is why I would find Jindal’s speech viscerally moving or even convincing at times. Jindal’s political beliefs certainly don’t align with my own on most matters. Moreover, as a non-religious person, I’m certainly jaded enough about what I perceive as some Christian groups’ continuous demands for preferential treatment in US society.

I believe then the reason that I, at times, find myself implicitly accepting Jindal’s arguments and why conservatives have chosen to use the notion of “religious freedom” in framing this issue is because of the power of abstraction to recruit the support or at the very least acceptance of a broad audience. Specifically, by using an abstraction such as “religious liberty”, Jindal creates the illusion that his cause is more generally shared and part of larger human struggles than I found it really is. Thus, it’s worth asking a few questions about Jindal’s discourse about religious liberty and the discourse about the concept more generally.

What is religious liberty?

Within the context of the speech, religious liberty is never explicitly defined, although I hope to flesh out a working analysis of Jindal’s apparent definition. Jindal, however, presents the need to define the concept as unnecessary by suggesting that we all know what it is. I believe the following excerpt from the speech provides some insight into what Jindal is proposing religious liberty is.

This war on religious liberty – on your freedom to exercise your religion, on your freedom to associate, on your freedom of expression – is only going to continue. It is going to continue because of an idea, a wrongheaded concept, which President Obama apparently believes: that religious freedom means you have the freedom to worship, and that’s all.

In this misbegotten and un-American conception of religious liberty, your rights begin and end in the pew.

For those of us who believe in the Great Commission, we know how silly this idea is. The President suggests that the right to worship and the right to evangelize and freely practice our faith are the same thing.

They’re not, and they’re not what the First Amendment clearly protects: the freedom to practice our faith and protect our conscience, even if those activities don’t happen to occur inside the four walls of a church building.

We have the right to practice our faith and protect our conscience no matter where we happen to be.

Take note of the statement we know how silly this idea is. Jindal speaks for his audience and subtly presupposes that they agree with his conception about religious liberty without providing a very clear concept of what it is. Such language seems designed to shield such statements from scrutiny and present them as ideas that enjoy a consensus especially from religious groups.

Despite lacking any explicit definition, it is clear that Jindal believes that religious liberty extends not only to the right to believe certain things or to practice certain rituals within religious spaces (for example, inside the four walls of a church building) but also to the right to act on certain beliefs with impunity. He, for example, contrasts religious freedom with the freedom to worship. 

Jindal’s dubious assertion that the First Amendment clearly protects the type of broad, unspecified liberty that he describes aside, it is worth noting what Jindal thinks people have a right to protection from. Perhaps the most obvious way in which Jindal argues this liberty should operate is in freedom from government intervention (that is, he wants to be free of punishment from the government as a result of his choosing to act on his religious beliefs in whatever way he sees fit).

However, Jindal’s conception of religious liberty goes beyond simply being free from sanctions imposed by the government. Violations to this liberty can also come from members of society and other institutions as illustrated by this hypothetical situation that Jindal presents:

This assault will only spread in the immediate future. We will see continued pressure brought on anyone who “refuses and refers” to be penalized for their views, denied membership in professional groups or even rejected from licenses.

Jindal presents the violation of religious liberty (this assault) to be enacted not only through government actions but also (apparently only hypothetically, for now) through that of professional organizations. Thus, religious liberty within Jindal’s speech extends not only to freedom from government intervention but also freedom from sanctions imposed by other outside institutions as a consequence of acting on one’s beliefs. I find this intriguing because one might reasonably present what the individuals in these professional organizations to be doing as acting on their beliefs, similar to Jindal’s claims about the actions of religious groups. For example, if the American Medical Association decides that it will not allow entry to physicians who refuse to treat homosexuals, then we could consider that action to be undertaken as a result of acting on the AMA members’ beliefs or on their consciences. It appears then that the specifically religious nature of beliefs is what Jindal feels qualifies them for protection from government or other sanction. This, of course, leads to another important question.

What makes a belief religious?

While the answer to this question may seem obvious enough to many people, I think it’s worth scrutinizing it, and I don’t need to do so by creating hypothetical religions with morally reprehensible belief systems or to point to groups widely considered to be fringe. The complexity of this question is observable even within the history of major world religions.

Jindal tries to justify religious liberty as a specific right by crediting religion with playing a role in a number of important and laudable historical events and movements in the following excerpt:

…we have fundamentally rejected the perspective of religion’s special place in our society which laid the seeds for the movements that ended slavery, won civil rights, and led to the American Revolution.

Taking slavery as an example, we might reasonably ask ourselves what do Christians believe concerning slavery? That is, what is their specifically religious belief that Jindal wishes to act upon with impunity? Certainly Jindal does not support slavery; that’s clear from his celebration of its abolition within his speech. However, can we reasonably say that the moral acceptability of a system of slavery has never been put forth as a religious belief? In the case of Christianity as a diverse religion, the answer is clearly no. The Bible itself is replete with descriptions of slavery yet utterly lacking in a clear condemnation of it. As a result, during the period of time when slavery was legal in (what during that time became) the United States, some religious institutions worked against slavery, while others worked to legitimate the racial hierarchy upon which slavery was based, claiming that Christianity stressed the need for slaves of apparently God-granted inferior lineage to be obedient to their God-appointed masters. It’s also not hard to think of groups that even today profess to be Christian who would not oppose a racialized system of slavery (for example, the Ku Klux Klan).

The important question here then is when Jindal discusses religious beliefs which beliefs should we consider to be religious and on whose authority? Indeed this second part of the question (on whose authority) is important given the Constitution’s explicit barring of establishing official religion(s). If people should be allowed to act on their religious beliefs with impunity, then, Jindal would be left with the terribly indefensible position of accepting basically any act as motivated by some religious belief. Jindal is, however, clearly not advocating that we allow anyone to do anything. He’s also not unaware of the fact that what people might espouse as their religious beliefs are diverse and often contradictory as evidenced by his acknowledgement of this at the end of his speech:

…let me be clear on something. You may or may not agree with the Catholic Church on contraception, most Americans undoubtedly do not.

You may consider yourself to be pro-life or pro-choice, Americans remain fairly divided on that issue. And you may favor protecting traditional marriage between one man and one woman or you may favor making gay marriage legal.

If we did a poll on those issues in this room, we would certainly find a variety of views.

It seems then unlikely that this complication (that is that defining what a religious belief is and what is not is not so simple) has never occurred to Jindal or the aids who helped develop this speech. I believe Jindal is hoping to push aside this issue in the hope that the audience will supply their own concept of what a religious belief is, namely, their own religious beliefs. This benefits Jindal by allowing him to avoid arbitrating on the legitimacy of others’ beliefs and thus offending others. Having to decide which beliefs are religious and which are not would also risk making Jindal’s apparent answer to the following question very explicit.

Whose religious liberty is Jindal interested in protecting?

An interesting progression within the speech that I observed is the movement from the apparently pluralistic representation of those on whose behalf Jindal appears to be speaking at the beginning of the speech to a narrower focus throughout the rest of the speech. Jindal’s speech begins with a nod to a variety of different religious groups, including the non-religious:

How we understand and approach that Creator is properly left to the hearts and consciences of every citizen. I am a Catholic Christian. My parents are Hindus. I am blessed to know Baptists, Jews, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so many more in the rich tapestry of American faiths. And I know men and women who acknowledge no denomination or creed, confess to uncertainty about the Divine, yet look to the richness of nature and the majesty of this world — and wonder, and inwardly seek, the Author of it all.

There is at least one notable absence here: Muslims, who are mentioned later in the speech in the role of oppressors (indeed a discussion of religious liberty in the US that does not mention the rights of Muslims seems, at best, to be negligent).  However, Jindal’s speech generally begins with a vision of the threat he describes as cutting across social difference in the US.

However, I took a closer look at who is described as having their religious liberty threatened. When specific victims are mentioned, they are invariably Christians. These are the specific groups, who Jindal claims have had their religious liberty violated recently:

  • Hobby Lobby, a large corporation, identifying itself as a Christian company that objects to having to allow certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act requiring that employer-provided insurance cover contraceptives
  • A Lutheran school in Michigan that was involved in a lawsuit because of their hiring practices
  • Catholic hospitals and adoption services that are opposed either to contraceptives, abortion, or homosexuality
  • Elane Photography, a photography company sued because it refused to photograph a homosexual couple’s commitment ceremony on the grounds that they, citing their Christianity, were opposed to homosexuality
  • Christians in other countries around the world who face persecution

Absent are other US religious groups’ (or non-religious groups’) concerns about their religious liberty. These concerns might include the fact that more government and institutional support is provided for the observance of Christian holidays than, for example, Jewish or Muslim holidays. Other absent concerns include the infiltration of Christianity into public spaces and the simultaneous exclusion of other religions from those spaces such as the presence of references to God on things like currency or the insertion of a reference to God into “The Pledge of Allegiance” (which is recited in public schools) as well as more recent attempts to place the Ten Commandments in public spaces (for example, in Georgia and Alabama). Concerns about Islamaphobia in the United States, in particular, are a notable absence. Thus, despite presenting his concerns as equally relevant to minority religious groups, religious minorities’ (e.g., Jews’, Muslims’, non-religious people’s) concerns are not represented.

It’s also important to point out that, in all cases within the US context, Jindal points, not to individual Christians, but rather to corporations, organizations, and other institutions. Hence, Jindal’s concerns revolve around the religious liberty of Christians exercising their power in their roles within these institutions. Far then from representing the concerns even of all Christians, Jindal speaks for those with particular belief sets and more importantly with the power and desire to exercise those beliefs on others from positions of power. He is operating then with a very narrow scope on whose religious liberty is worth protecting.

Final thoughts

When we take the different aspects of this analysis together, I think we can present a cogent picture of what Jindal’s abstraction, religious liberty, really represents. Religious liberty to Jindal is freedom not only to believe and to worship as he sees fit but also to act on specific beliefs in particular manners. The notion of what constitutes a religious belief is a complexity that Jindal ignores. I believe he does so because to name what religious beliefs he was talking about would have two effects.

First, it would draw attention to the fact that his agenda, while using an abstraction relevant to many people, is concerned with the powers of a smaller number, mainly some Christian groups with particular beliefs and the power to punish those they disagree with even to the extent that their actions would arguably violate others’ right to their beliefs, religious or otherwise.

Second, being specific about what constitutes religious liberty here would force Jindal to frame his argument in a way that more clearly positioned him and those he fights for as oppressors. Indeed, when we consider that the rights Jindal is hoping for are those that concern the ability to act against others, it is clear that what is at stake here is the power to impose, not the right to believe. For example, Jindal identifies Christian businesses wanting to exclude homosexuals from their services as one group whose religious liberty is threatened. However, to frame this as “the right to exclude homosexuals” would place the discriminatory nature of the law front and center. Thus, Jindal and others opt instead to use an abstraction, because it allows them to step into the role of oppressed and deliver the stirring political discourse that such a role allows them. The specific freedoms they are fighting for, however, bear a strong similarity to the powers of the oppressor.

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Posted in Language and politics, Media discourse and media bias

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