If Samuel Johnson were around today he might well feel that religion, rather than patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It certainly seems to be an excuse, or self-justification, for all kinds of bad behaviour, as well as a source of strength and inspiration to holiness in others. Not least this is the case in regard to some leading Christian approaches to LGBTI+ people and their vigorous intent on backlash. At times horribly distorting reality, they even hijack 'religious freedom' into its opposite - i.e religious privilege - thereby further diminishing religion's positive features and making life very difficult for those very many Christians who believe and act differently. Indeed, when it comes to the current contentious battle over 'religious freedom', as both a transgender person and a Christian, I consequently frequently find part of who I am dismissed by one contending group or another. When, instead, will we recognise that the real problem are the scoundrels? Just as Samuel Johnson was not attacking patriotism as such, only a false kind of patriotism, so we do well to call out those with 'bad faith', whilst finding a fresh consensus among those genuinely seeking balance of conscience and liberty, whether we are secular or not. ..
Not being a legal expert, I hesitate to make specific forensic judgements on every area where religious life and belief connect with wider public and political life and principle. Yet it appears clear to me that much of the current western Christian assertions of the need for increased 'religious freedom' (aka religious 'privilege') are flawed on at least three grounds. Firstly, it is so evidently self-centred. In my inter-faith work, I have long struggled with others to support freedom, respect and mutual understanding for Muslims, Jews and other people of other faiths, in circumstances where it is needed. Rarely have today's noisy advocates of 'religious freedom' been found prominently among such struggles. Sometimes they have even be sympathisers, or even arguably proponents, of such harassment. Where there are isolated Christian concerns here, they pale into insignificance with the huge need to address deficits of religious freedom in many parts of our world. Indeed, there is often a great dis-connect between these things. Whilst the current Australian Government has set up the Ruddock Freedom Review, it does all it can to keep out so many asylum seekers and to prevent scrutiny and accountability in their treatment. Again, with the laudable exception of figures like the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, many of those most vocal about their idea of 'religious freedom' are often quiet or defensive about such issues.
Secondly, much right-wing advocacy is a distortion of religious freedom. This is deeply frustrating and depressing. For the Bible and Christian tradition show us that true freedom, which comes from God, is typically a dynamic not a static, defensive, force. It is active, not passive. It is protective and enlarging of others, not self-regarding and constricting of neighbours. It is, as Martin Luther put it so powerfully (in his landmark treatise 'On the Freedom of a Christian') a freedom to serve, not a freedom to control (see further my longer article drawn from my academic research). It is the power of love to transform and liberate, on each and every level of life. Yet, in the eyes of an increasing number of 'ordinary' people, as well as more militant opponents, the advocacy of 'religious freedom' makes Christians seem at best restrictive and at worst bigoted and hurtful. No wonder campaigns are growing to remove tax privileges from churches or that Christian leaders begin to be regarded with suspicion when they enter public debates. At a time when deep lament and penitence is required on the part of Christians (above all for our institutional church complicity with sexual abuse), power and privilege is clung to even harder by some.
Finally, and most importantly, the drive for distorted 'religious freedom' fails to meet the need to love and contribute positively with others in the continuing journey of seeking beauty, truth and freedom. For one of my major theological concerns about the drive for 'religious freedom' is the way in which it seeks to freeze religious development. Notions of Christians being 'counter-cultural' have thus begun to figure more prominently among more right-wing Christians. Yet this is is not to pursue a more enlarging culture for everyone but to hold on to the privileges some Christians have. In doing so, deeply unhistorical and a-contextual use is sometimes made of experiences of persecution in earlier Christian times. Thereby the complexity of Christian history, and the voices of LGBTI+ Christians among others, are obscured. Indeed, in betrayal of its supposed counter-cultural identity, such 'religious freedom' actually seeks to use the State and secular law to enable it to build walls against such deeper and fresh assessments of revelation and reason. The needs of LGBTI+ Christians and other minorities to be properly regarded, safeguarded in employment and their use of gifts, and enabled to participate (even, admittedly, often as minority voices) in religious life, is easily swept aside. When it does so, Christianity denies its genius and risks becoming a mere fossil. For it still exists, and flourishes, when it re-invents itself for every age. To do so is to be faithful to the nature of truth and freedom and the nature of God who calls us ever more deeply into them.
My frequent plea to all Christian leaders at this time is therefore to be more humble and to walk more patiently and expectantly with those who are so often marginalised. In doing so, responsible Christian leaders (who do exist but are often ignored) then know what pain there exists in today's western world because of past, and continuing, actions by Christians. They also start to recognise what a massive wellspring of spiritual strength, care and imagination there is 'out there' with which the Church could re-connect, if we were indeed to love our neighbours as ourselves. If - my 'religious freedom' (aka privilege) seeking Christian siblings - you want to paint yourself into a corner, and have secular opponents help you to do so, carry on the way you are. There are however more life-giving, healing, alternatives. Those of us caught between your defensiveness and others' reactions pray that you may take them.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.