From the Dean: More Than Bumper Sticker Thinking

Written by Kristina Alvarado
April 29, 2015

Over the past few weeks, the powerful and complex relationship between the concepts of ?religious? and ?freedom? in the state of Indiana has consumed a great deal of media attention in the United States. ? You might not think an adjective like ?religious? could create such problems for a noun like freedom. ?But, it sure has. ?A similar clash between the two concepts occurred in a very different way and context in the nation of Iran. ?In each situation, a single action juxtaposing religious and freedom set off a series of societal repercussions that demonstrates just how fragile the equilibrium is that exists in a simplistic pairing of these two concepts.

?Religion? and ?freedom? evoke deep, complex, and often conflicted human instincts and drives. ?Religion can open us to the wonders of the world or restrict and warp our view of reality. ?It can liberate us or oppress us. ?It can impregnate us with wonder and hope, or an irrational fear of the unknown and a guilt-ridden paralysis. ?At the same time, political and social freedom can awaken us to deeper responsibility and call us to unimagined levels of self-actualization, or it can plant seeds of self-absorption and provide license to engage in behaviors that will ultimately destroy us, and those around us. ?Human history is littered with examples of people who have taken pathways of religious belief and freedom to glory and disaster, so it is important to take notice when these two words intersect with one another in our common life. ?A lot is at stake.

The U.S. and Iranian dramas suggest that the world?s growing pluralism, interconnectivity and flatness (to use Thomas Friedman?s term for a leveling global playing field) is making the relationship between religion and freedom increasingly complicated. ?

In the first situation, the Iran Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports announced that women and families will have the freedom to attend most kinds of sporting events in the future, something that has been prohibited for decades due to a narrow interpretation of Islamic teachings on appropriate behaviors for gender mixed gatherings. ?The religious argument for the policy of exclusion had a simplistic approach to religious interpretation, and a similar application to sporting events. ?In a second and very different kind of interaction between religious and freedom, Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). ?The line of reasoning was grounded in the arguments of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. ?However, the Indiana law?s passage led to an unprecedented national outcry, with many people claiming the measure would legalize Jim Crow-like legislation against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning (LGBTQ) community. ?Under great pressure, the Indiana legislature quickly modified the law. ?Apparently, nothing is simple anymore when it comes to addressing the relationship between religious belief and freedom.

In regards to these two issues dealing with religious and freedom, the cultures of the United States and Iran could not be more different. Yet, both developments reveal the potent mix created when religious belief and the instinct for freedom interact in a society that has an increasing diversity in thought and values. ?One of the few things American and Iranian cultures share at this moment in history is that the information and social pressures of a shrinking world are bringing different kinds of people and ideas together. ?In the process, the boundaries of difference are becoming more porous. This combination makes it increasingly difficult to fashion a common life, regardless of your history or style of government. ?

In the case of Iran, the catalyst of change for the policy about women at sports activities can probably be traced back to the brave act of Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 26-year-old law graduate of the University of London, and a dual Iranian and British citizen. ?She is just one example of the new ideas appearing in Iran through students educated in other nations. The Iranian republic has had a longstanding ban on women attending large sporting events alongside male fans. ? Last year, Ghavami stood outside Tehran?s Azadi stadium with other women activists and demanded the right to watch Iran?s volleyball team play against Italy. ?Ghavami was arrested and imprisoned, but was later released because of international pressure. ?In this case, religion was used to limit the freedom of women, but outside forces intervened. ?First, the international volleyball federation, said it would not allow Iran to host international events, such as world championships, if women remained barred from stadiums. ?A short time later, the Asian Football Confederation decided to allow the United Arab Emirates to host the 2019 Asian soccer cup again rather than have Iran host. ?Some think this decision was also influenced by the attendance restrictions on women and families. ?Sometimes the forces of freedom come from the most unlikely places, and now Iran with new political leadership is trying to re-think its understanding of the relationship between religious belief and freedoms. ?

In a profoundly different cultural context we see the ramifications of the Indiana?s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). ?The reactions to this law have played out in the media like a movie script. ?The measure was signed into law in a private ceremony by Gov. Mike Pence, with the ostensible intent of prohibiting laws that would ?substantially burden? a citizen?s freedom of religion, unless the government could prove a ?compelling? reason for dictating certain restrictions. ?Some people immediately assumed the law was a sneaky way to make it legal to discriminate against LGBTQ, and it looked like we might get another tiresome chapter of the culture wars.

Owners of a local pizza parlor in Walkerton, Ind., a small community of 2,200 people just south of South Bend, said they supported RFRA and would refuse to cater a gay wedding. ??If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no,? one of the proprietors of the pizzeria told ABC 57, citing her Christian beliefs. ? Social media exploded with reactions pro and con and threatening phone calls besieged the restaurant, forcing it to close temporarily. ? On the other side, supporters of the restaurant owners? decision raised $50,000 in 11 hours for the beleaguered Mom and Pop operation.

But, what sounds like a typical culture war story didn?t happen. ?Influential people from different sectors of American society looked at the law, passed their own judgment on what it meant and its likely consequences, and logged their own reactions loud and clear to political leaders in Indiana. ?Regardless of what the law said, or the intention behind it, an avalanche of complaints came quickly and from less than likely places. ?

Among those that logged complaints against the law were business executives, endowments investing in Indiana businesses, late night comedians and entertainers originating from Indiana, governors of other states, the president of the NCAA and Final Four coaches. ?Additionally, a major Christian denomination, the Disciples of Christ, relocated its 6,000-person 2017 convention from Indiana saying, ?Religious freedom is also one of the cherished tenets of our Disciples tradition. The freedom of one goes too far, however, when that one?s freedom threatens to exclude or inhibits the freedoms of others? (See their letter to the governor here). Sean Hannity, the Fox News talk show host with one of the most divisive reputations, calls for consistency from those who oppose the law, challenging them to also demonstrate equal vocal opposition to U.S. involvement with Islamic nations that have histories of human rights violations against gay and lesbians (See a clip here). ?

The reaction against RFRA surprised the Indiana authors of the bill, but it is clear this is not just an issue for the Hoosier state. ?The Arkansas legislature also passed a religious freedom law and is receiving similar reactions.

Perhaps the volatile reaction to the bill in Indiana signals an opportunity for more serious and nuanced discussion of the impact of religious ideas and beliefs on our political freedoms and vice-versa. ?For too long the United States has tried to have public discussions about complicated issues in sound bytes that are often small enough to plaster across the bumper of a car. ?Maybe we are coming to the end of an era when these issues can be discussed with bumper sticker theology and politics. ?Such thinking does not fit our complicated world. ?

Like so many cultural issues of complexity, issues related to homosexuality have been reduced too frequently to placard size, dishonoring the positions of the serious people involved in the discussions, and ceding the microphone to those who craft the debate with bumper sticker thinking and clever slogans. ?An added challenge is that as societies grapple more concretely with the challenges of religious freedom in pluralistic cultures the voices of once silenced members can become audible for the first time. ?There are more people in the discussions now, and more experiences to share with each other.

It is ironic that the American and Iranian dramas of religious belief and freedom should occur at this time of the year. ?Religion and freedom have been integrally linked in the beliefs and rituals of the Jewish tradition of Passover and the Christian tradition of Easter. ? Both rituals recognize the power of God to free and liberate under any circumstance ? freedom from slavery and oppression and freedom from the normal limitations placed upon humans, even the power of physical death. ? Reflection on the mysteries of Passover and Easter has empowered millions of people to overcome indescribable hardships by inspiring courage and steadfastness in a righteous cause over long periods of time. ?Many of those people of faith did not need a state to tell them they had freedom. ?Their faith told them that freedom would ultimately come as a gift from God, as they worked as best they could to cooperate with a Divine vision of a post-Babel common humanity.

Unfortunately for those who would like to apply simple answers and bumper sticker theology and politics to complex issues, the meaning of the terms religious and freedom in Judaism and Christianity are anything but simple. ?There have also been changes in the understanding of a Divine vision for our common purpose, taking on different shades of meaning as the two religious traditions have evolved through the centuries, operating in different historical eras and responding to different political and social structures, pressures, limitations and opportunities. ?Perhaps we are in another one of those periods of evolution.

In the case of the Indiana law, you see this process of a hunt for more nuances and less bumper sticker thinking, coming from the people of the state, and even those supporting the original version of RFRA. ?In different news accounts, several Hoosiers expressed their own ambivalence on the issue, realizing that both religious belief and freedom are more complicated than often portrayed. ?Many admitted they have come to terms with their own thoughts and feelings about Christian belief and gay couples celebrating a marriage. ?One Indiana restaurant owner supporting RFRA suggested that he would cater a gay marriage, but would drop the food off and not attend the ceremony. ? Less bumper sticker, more nuance.

The difference between serving a gay couple in a restaurant and catering a gay marriage has been one of the most frequent examples of what might be at stake in RFRA. ?If you are a conservative Christian baker would the law allow you to refuse to bake a cake for gay couple?s nuptials? ?The posing of the question is actually a first step in making greater distinctions and nuances. ? ? The owner of the pizzeria that was temporarily shut down because of protests said anyone would be welcome inside her restaurant, except for the rude, and made her comment about not catering a gay wedding because a reporter posed it as a hypothetical question. ?

Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times, described his own complex view on gay marriage as someone committed to his conservative Christian beliefs. ?He knows that many provide a caricature of his position because he considers gay marriage outside the biblical and Christian tradition?s historical position and favors the original version of the bill. ?But, Douthat also admits he has gay friends, and will attend a celebration of one couple?s union. ?He would even bring a cake to the reception, if they asked him to do so. ?But, Douthat thinks it's a bad idea to make someone else bring a cake as a rule of law.

Another Christian columnist, Matthew Dowd, is even more conflicted. ?He recognizes the deep-seated value tensions and inconsistencies on the part of everyone, from narrow-minded Christians who have bigoted ideas about gays, to liberal Christians and secularists who believe all conservative believers are a more primitive form of the human species, to organizations like Wal-Mart, which has a notorious reputation for treating employees poorly, and yet has lobbied hard against RFRA.

?So many of us want to live a life of integrity in the midst of all the political back-and-forth, and we want to believe that we are open-minded and loving, but we have a hard time practicing that in our day-to-day lives. We all struggle to integrate what we think, what we say, and what we do in peaceful and deep alignment,? says Dowd. ? Less bumper sticker, more nuance.

The relationship between religious belief and practice and political and social freedom has been a quicksand for centuries in those nations trying to experiment with an emerging democratic impulse. ?In the United States, federal jurisprudence spent little time on issues of religion and freedom until the late 1940s when the growing pluralism of the nation became undeniable and unavoidable. ?Consequently, this is one part of the constitution that remains in need of more complex and mature thought.

Our current struggles with the clashes between religious belief and freedom will only be resolved with a deeper understanding of the issues, more discerning spirits in the midst of disagreements, and more nuanced approaches to how religious and freedom go together. ?We should give thanks that we live in a nation and at a time in history in which the true complexity of issues have the opportunity to bubble up into our collective view. ?But, we all need to realize that the pluralism of our times will make it increasingly difficult to solve our tensions and differences in the commons. ? We used to be able to resolve some of our differences in the past with a bumper sticker. ?It will take more in the future.

It reminds me of the students who used to try to check out the movie when our English class read a long, difficult novel. ?The students would try to bluff their way through the class by displaying a familiarity with character and story line, but the smartest teachers picked up on their deceit. ?The novel was a lot more complicated than the story line in the film.

Similarly, John Steinbeck made an observation in his review of Cecil B. DeMille?s famous 1927 silent movie, King of Kings, which portrayed the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. ?

?Saw the movie,? said Steinbeck, ?Loved the book.? ?

In our increasingly pluralistic, interconnected and flat world, the tensions between religious belief and practice and political freedom won?t be resolved with the film or the Cliff Notes version of issues. ?If we are going to make our way together as a society, more of us are going to have to read the book.