There has been much public discussion over the last couple of weeks about laws that have been passed in North Carolina and Mississippi that purport to protect “religious freedom” by denying legal protections to members of the LBGTQ community. Some of these laws, which are also being considered in various forms in some other states, concern who can use what sort of public restroom. Some of these laws allow people to discriminate against and deny services to others whom they find offensive (namely, LGBTQ people). Much of what these laws say and do have been defended by their proponents as somehow protecting the religious people — specifically, they are meant to allow religious people to be mean to other people because, allegedly, their religion requires it.
Let’s be honest: these laws have been passed or are under consideration in states that have an overwhelmingly Christian identification. So it’s very clear that when the proponents of these laws speak of religious freedom, they most definitely have Christianity in mind. So what we are really talking about is the existence of a religious mandate within the Christian tradition to discriminate against and deny services to people who are defined by Christianity as being unacceptable. And that being the case, we should ask what sort of Christianity we are talking about.
The sad truth is that Christianity for centuries has been involved in shaming various groups of people who were in some way found unacceptable. People of color, women, disabled people, the mentally ill, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people — all have had their turn at being shamed in one way, shape, or form by the Christian tradition. About the only people who haven’t had a turn at being on the receiving end of Christian condemnation are white, straight men. In our day, it is the LGBTQ community that is the scapegoat du jour.
But let us be clear: while Christianity has been very much in the business of shaming those who have been classified as unacceptable for one reason or another, this has never found a justification in the life and teaching of Jesus. No where will you find Jesus either commanding or giving permission to put other people in a place of shame and leave them there. In fact, this was the major critique by Jesus of the people of the religious and cultural traditions of his time and place, which also engaged in the practice of shaming those who were deemed unacceptable. Jesus actively worked to bring those who were cast out by these traditions back to a place of community and inclusion.
I have no doubt that if Jesus were to appear amongst us today, he would be criticizing the Christianity of our time in the same way as he did the Judaism of his time. He would be standing against any attempt to justify discrimination and just plain mean behavior in the name of religion. And he would be spending his time among those against whom these new laws have been directed, assuring them of God’s love, and working to bring them back into the fullness of community life.
When religion becomes a justification for bad behavior and a tool for reenforcing our prejudices and protecting our fears, then it ceases to be authentic religion and has instead become a cultural artifact of the privileged and powerful. It is when religion is challenging us to move beyond our fears and prejudices, moving us into an uncomfortable place that invites us to change our hearts and expand our spirits, that it is authentic. If you have any doubt about that, spend some time reading the gospels, and what Jesus actually said and did.
None of these laws are about religious freedom. They are instead about using religion to justify our desire to hurt those who are different from us, those whom we cannot understand. And that is not the best of our humanity — it is the very worst.