Religious Freedom and Christian Dominance

a picture of an American flag and a Bilble that challenges notions of religious freedom.
Photo credit: Ehrlif/Dreamstime
Written by Guy Nave

While celebrating Easter this year, I did quite a bit of thinking about the so-called religious freedom legislation proposed in Indiana and Arkansas.

In a recent interview on the Family Research Council radio program, “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins,” former Arkansas Governor and potential 2016 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee discussed the backlash against the religious freedom legislation in these two states.

Huckabee asserted that gay-rights activists are seeking the eradication of Christian churches. According to Huckabee, “It won’t stop until there are no more churches until there are no more people who are spreading the Gospel.”

Christianity has been and continues to be the dominant form of religious practice and expression in America. Often the rhetoric used by members of dominant groups insinuates that when people outside of their dominant group ask for equal rights and the opportunity to participate fully in American life, they are actually seeking to eradicate the existence of that dominant group.

Many Christians have asserted that homosexual marriages are a threat to traditional heterosexual marriages. Advocates for homosexual marriage, however, are not promoting or advocating for the eradication of heterosexual marriage or the eradication of Christian churches. They are simply asking that homosexuals be afforded the same opportunities as heterosexuals to participate fully and equally (without discrimination) in American life.

When Governor Huckabee and others insinuate that requests for equal rights and full participation in American life represent a threat to religious freedom and an attempt to destroy the Christian church, what their rhetoric clearly reveals is that for them the destruction of their dominance is equal to the destruction of the church itself. For such people, dominance is an inherent part of the church’s identity.

Many of the Christian arguments promoting religious freedom suggest some Christians believe they should have the “freedom” to legally deny certain people the rights, privileges, and benefits experienced by other people.

Many Americans believe that one of the responsibilities of government is to ensure equal opportunity for all people and to ensure no one group of people exercises any sort of legally sanctioned dominance that grants them the right, power, or ability, to deny other groups of people access to rights, benefits, and privileges experienced by others.

The U.S. government—on both the federal and state level—already provides corporations, small businesses, churches, clergy, and many religious organizations certain benefits that are denied to a majority of Americans (tax benefits being the most obvious). It appears that some of the recipients of these benefits also desire the religious freedom to not be compelled to provide benefits and/or services that “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

Newly proposed legislation in Louisiana goes a step further than the legislation proposed in Indiana and Arkansas.

It allows a private company to not offer benefits to same-sex married couples if there are religious objections. Furthermore, it seeks to prevent the Louisiana government from taking away state contracts and tax benefits from business owners because of the owners’ views on same-sex marriage.

The U.S. government cannot and should not provide governmental support and protection for “a person’s exercise of religion” when that exercise of religion grants that person the religious freedom to extend rights, privileges, and benefits to certain groups of people while denying the same rights, privileges and benefits to other groups of people.

As many people reflect on the historical significance and meaning of the Christian celebration of Easter, it’s important to recognize that implicit within early beliefs regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection was the notion of challenging political and religious dominance.

Despite the unwarranted claims of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, challenging and questioning so-called religious freedom legislation is actually about eradicating the religious dominance of the church rather than eradicating the church itself, unless of course—as Huckabee and others seem to believe—religious dominance is an inherent part of the Christian church.

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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