It doesn’t matter if you’re from the left or the right. You may not want to hear that religions do a lot of harm. But they do.
We should have learned this already from the terrible child abuse crisis, where clergy harmed children, and then the children’s abuse was hidden and denied by people running the churches. Despite this terrible history, the harm continues.
This harm is apparent in the recent decisions by some churches to hold services even after a state has said it is dangerous for anyone to meet in person. The states passed stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders to keep people safe. Nonetheless, some pastors argue that church is the place where people heal. Others insist that the meeting bans are an attack on religious freedom, and that such meetings are absolutely protected by the First Amendment. “[O]ne of the church congregants said she believed she would not contract coronavirus because she is ‘covered in Jesus’ blood,’ and that she is not concerned she could spread it to anyone else.” Another pastor said “God will shield us from all harm and sickness, . . . We are not afraid. We are called by God to stand against the Antichrist creeping into America’s borders. We will spread the Gospel.”
The churches’ members are not the only ones who oppose the meeting limitations. Fifteen states have offered full or partial exemptions for religions from the orders, often under the perspective that religions are essential businesses.
These protests and exemptions miss the basic point that people cannot avoid coronavirus by going in person to church. Being in physical contact with others raises one’s risk of illness, as the experiences of other churches show. Sometimes it is more important to listen to the doctors and the scientists, instead of the pastors who pretend that physical harm cannot happen to them or you.
These meetings and exemptions continue because it is very hard to be critical of religion. In 2018, seven of nine Supreme Court justices ruled in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, that a cake-baker could discriminate against a same-sex couple because Colorado had violated the cake baker’s free exercise of religion. How? At one of the Colorado meetings, a Civil Rights Commissioner had said:
I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.
Plain and simple, this statement is true. It reflects the truth that religions have always harmed some people, and often seriously. Nonetheless, after quoting that statement, Justice Kennedy concluded, “This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”
Justice Kennedy was wrong. Telling the truth about religion should not be viewed as a form of discrimination. Instead, it is an honest enterprise that should be protected by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which is supposed to protect us against religion-run government.
There are many ways that religions do harm to people. They justify discrimination against LGBTQIs, as Masterpiece demonstrates. They frequently discriminate against women, often limiting our rights to contraception, abortion, and job equality. Medical conscience clauses, which have expanded under the Trump administration, appear in theory to do good things. But in practice they limit the medical care of at least women and LGBTQIs, and today, anyone else the conscience holder wants to discriminate against.
Discrimination is bad. Yet religious employers are free to fire anyone they call a minister for any reason, with the minister never allowed a day in court.
Katherine Stewart’s recent book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, provides a detailed explanation of how the Religious Right has used its power to advance religion-based government in harmful ways. The movement aims to restore a biblically based government that in fact was not present at the origins of this country. As Stewart points out, by religious freedom, “participants simply mean privilege for those with the right religion.”
We learn about many religious actions that harm people from this book.
The roots of the Religious Right are in an old religious commitment to slavery. Even post-Civil War and post-Brown v. Board of Education, the modern movement defended segregated schools and wanted tax exemptions for them.
The Religious Right has had enormous success undermining the public system of U.S. education, especially by building religious charter schools and encouraging vouchers. Many churches and religious clubs have infiltrated public schools. Indeed, one of the biggest opponents of public-school education, Betsy DeVos, is now the U.S. Secretary of Education.
The book repeatedly mentions that these Christians believe women must be subordinate to men, as the Bible says. And LGBTQIs deserve no civil rights.
These churches want to be tax-exempt and endorse politicians with their tax-exempt income. They have fought and violated the Johnson amendment, which bans tax-free political endorsements, for years. “An aim of the movement, it would seem, is to turn houses of worship into the cash machines of the political system by allowing special interests to pour millions of tax-free dollars into churches, which could then turn around and spend like super PACs to elect or defeat candidates.” (p. 142).
The movement does not believe the government should provide for the poor. Their heroes were opponents of the New Deal. They believe fathers are supposed to provide for families, and women are not to become like men.
The fight against both abortion and contraception is steady, with some members ending the Pledge of Allegiance “with liberty and justice for all, born and unborn.” (p. 70, emphasis added). Stewart also explains in great detail how she and other women have suffered from the religious policies that govern women’s health at Catholic hospitals. The church’s theological rules against sterilization, abortion and contraception are in charge no matter what health effects they have on women. After telling the stories of women harmed by limited health care coverage, Stewart tells her own story, concluding that her “best guess is that the hospital was willing to gamble with my life for the sake of preserving a child that was at that point nothing more than a fiction of their imagination.” (p. 247).
Stewart also reminds us of the power of the government to pray at government meetings, which was affirmed by the Court’s 5-4 majority in Town of Greece v. Galloway. Non-Christians keep trying to get a voice in these meetings. But they rarely do. This might sound good to you, if you think it is good to have biblically based government. But Stewart confirms this theory means “participants simply mean privilege for those with the right religion.”
It might be hard for you to face it. Religions do regular harm to people. The Constitution is not supposed to protect such harm, no matter how much people say they want to do harm in the name of religious freedom.