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Freedom From Religion | The Nation

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Freedom From Religion

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Apart from its relationship to the state, the church is an independent source of social control, exercising authority through the culture and first of all through the socialization of children. Like the church itself, the family is not a democratic institution, and freedom of religion in this society applies only to adults; parents have a taken-for-granted right to impose on their children their own religious beliefs and associated moral--especially sexual--prohibitions (the Jehovah's Witnesses case is the rare exception). While some people choose their religion, in "free acknowledgment of that by which we are bound," as Neuhaus puts it, most absorb it at an age when parental authority is what counts. In fact, it's doubtful that adults who reject religion can truly escape the influence of a religious upbringing--a proposition that explains a lot about Americans' ambivalence on moral and cultural issues.

About the Author

Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis directed the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and was a Freda Kirchwey...

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So long as American society preserved relatively clear boundaries between public and private and applied democratic ideals to a narrowly defined political realm, conflict between secularism and religion was kept to a minimum. (Even a notorious incident like the Scopes trial had more to do with the conflict between mainstream Protestantism and fundamentalism.) But the movements of the '60s destabilized that détente. Now issues of sexual morality, male-female relations, childrearing and education--the very issues on which the institutional authority of religion is most at stake--are politicized. The democratic quest for individual autonomy, equality of political power and a strict interpretation of the establishment clause now extends to all cultural institutions and norms, challenging religious orthodoxy on issues that range from school prayer to censorship, nonmarital sex and childbearing, abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage. Secularists tend to see religious opposition to social liberalism purely as an attempt to impose church doctrine on unbelievers, but this is too simple. Believers' complaint against a secular culture is above all that it exposes their own children to powerful--and as they see it disastrous--temptations to choose a different way of life.

One need not trivialize the fears of religious parents to recognize that this is at bottom a complaint against democracy itself. The devout cannot have it both ways. Pro-church arguments have made headway on the left by purporting to defend the democratic rights of the religious, but this is not really a debate about rights. Rather, what pro-church militants are demanding is exemption from challenge to, or even criticism of, their claim to a privileged role in shaping social values. With no sense of contradiction, they presume the right, even obligation, to attack secularists' worldview while feeling entitled to unquestioned "respect," which is to say suffocating reverence, for their own beliefs. In a democracy, however, organized religion has no more right to be shielded from opposition than the state, the corporation, the labor union, the university, the media or any other institution.

Pro-churchers will object that religion is different, that even those who reject its truth need its morality. But the conflation of morality with religion is exactly what secularists contest. The secular stereotype of the devout as irrational has its counterpart in the pro-church assumption that secularists are devoted to a "value free" relativism and derive whatever morality they happen to retain from vestigial religious influence. Into this "vacuum," it is supposed, enter the nightmare inversions and perversions of morality that characterized the totalitarian secularisms of recent history. It's true that the basic moral proposition of secularism--that social norms should be grounded in the imperatives of earthly, human happiness--can lead to morally obnoxious ideas, depending on one's understanding of happiness. (Of course, so can the proposition that social norms must be grounded in God's will, depending on one's understanding of that will.) But a democratic secularism, which regards personal freedom and social equality as underpinnings of the good society, offers an alternative moral vision that coincides with religious morality in many respects, yet sharply departs from it in others--particularly in matters of sex.

Antisecularists argue that left critics of religious intrusion into politics have a double standard: We don't mind when churches take a stand against racism or poverty, only when they oppose legal abortion, homosexual rights and related sexual-political causes. But racial and economic issues do not provoke a clash between competing religious and secular moralities; believers and nonbelievers can be found on all sides of these debates, and religious as well as secular liberalism has been shaped by Enlightenment principles. Conservative sexual morality and antifeminism, on the other hand, are rooted in premodern, patriarchal religious ideology, while the logic of secular morality supports gender equality and a view of sexual fulfillment as a human right.

Unlike parochial-school vouchers, charitable choice and George W.'s new federal office, the right's sexual-political agenda, however religiously motivated, does not violate the establishment clause; religious morality and religion itself are not the same thing. But it does undermine the spirit of secular democracy. Although there are atheist right-to-lifers, the militant leadership, organization and financial sponsorship of the antiabortion and "pro-family" movements are religious. Without the conservative churches, those movements would not exist. Furthermore, these churches display a unique passion and commitment when it comes to sexual politics: The Catholic Church attacks Catholic politicians who stray from Church teachings on abortion--not capital punishment. For in fighting to enforce sexual orthodoxy, organized religion is also fighting to salvage its own authority. Sexual guilt, instilled at an early age, makes people feel sinful and reinforces their need for the church. Belief in their right to sexual freedom drives them away.

For democrats, it's as crucial to defend secular culture as to preserve secular law. And in fact the two projects are inseparable: When religion defines morality, the wall between church and state comes to be seen as immoral. This is what we're facing now--not only from Bush and the Christian right, but from the earnest centrists and liberals who are doing their dirty work.

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