If there is a single unifying theme that spans the entire career of the late, great comedian George Carlin, it is the importance of the words we use. As far back as his original list of the seven words you can’t say on television, he spoke of the power of words, and warned us all that those who would manipulate language can easily manipulate thoughts.
I was reminded of the relevance of Carlin’s warnings during the recent fight over the nameless Arizona SB 1062 bill, which Governor Jan Brewer (thankfully) vetoed. This was the bill that would have allowed business owners an exemption to the public accommodation law based on their religious beliefs. Translated, religious shop owners could refuse service based on sexual orientation, because the LGBT lifestyle is forbidden in their particular religion. Its supporters called it a bill designed to protect “religious freedom.”
I think this is an interesting turn of phrase, as the Religious Right has adopted this phrase as its own. This is distinct from the phrase “freedom of religion.” While neither phrase exists in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the latter comes closer to the text itself. (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”) By shorthand, we can safely declare that one of the rights we have guaranteed to us, is freedom of religion, but that’s not the same as saying we have religious freedom.
Freedom of religion means that we have the freedom to worship any god which we might choose to worship, or not to worship at all. Just like freedom of the press gives journalists the right to print things that might be unpopular, embarrassing, or otherwise something that those who maintain and wield power might prefer not to be public knowledge.
Freedom of the press is not the same as journalistic freedom, because journalists have a responsibility to report the truth, first and foremost. A journalist does not have the freedom to make up lies about a person or a group. A journalist who wishes to unseat those in power must perform a proper investigation and report the facts. Moving beyond that crosses into libel (if it’s written) or slander (if it’s spoken), and can rightfully be prosecuted in a court of law. Journalistic freedom, therefore, knows no bounds and, at its most innocent, is unethical.
The phrase “religious freedom” is a subtle twist of the words and the intent of the First Amendment. Indeed, there is a group calls itself the Religious Freedom Coalition. It shouldn’t take much time looking at their web page to know that they are a representative sample of the propaganda-wielding Religious Right and that their real intent is to run roughshod over the Constitution by striving to impose their worldview on the American people. To them it’s not freedom of religion; it’s the freedom to impose their religion on others but block other faiths (or non-faiths) from doing the same.
We are not free to do something unless we are free to do its opposite. We’re not truly free to speak, for example, unless we are free not to speak. We are not free to own a gun unless we are free not to own a gun. We are therefore not free to worship as we might please, unless we can be guaranteed the freedom not to worship at all. That’s the beauty of the Constitution. It protects us all. The moment one group wishes to usurp the freedom they have been granted, by trying to push other groups out, is the moment freedom ends.
So let’s honor freedom of religion by not bowing to the pressure of someone claiming religious freedom.