I have been noticing lately the increasing tendency to equate the term "religious" with "Christian," and "Christian" with "Evangelical Christian." As a religious Jew, I feel that it is important to point out that such such an equation is not only incorrect -- it is dangerous. While an overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God, and while most are Christians, only a minority are Evangelical (the ultra-right Wheaton College estimates that only 30 percent of Americans are). And, more importantly, even fewer are fundamentalist evangelicals.
Yet somehow, conservative fundamentalist Evangelical Christians have been able to co-opt the term "religious" and seemingly every related term -- terms ranging from "faith" to "observant" seem now to connote political conservatism. Perhaps it is the result of people like Pat Robertson insisting over and over again that the only "true believers" are those who agree with a bigoted political agenda. Perhaps not. I leave it to greater minds than mine to determine.
I noticed this phenomenon first taking place in individual discussions I had. In one instance, while debating a conservative about same-sex marriage, I mentioned that, no, I wasn't a Christian, and, no I did not go to Church. My opponent responded by furiously claiming that I shouldn't be foisting my "atheist Godless immorality" on everyone else. I told him that, first of all, I wasn't an atheist -- I was Jewish, and I went to synagogue on more than a weekly basis, and, second of all, that just because someone doesn't believe in God, that doesn't mean that they're an immoral person. He apologized, but his thought process was clear: the only people who are religious are conservative Christians -- if you're religious, you'll agree with my definition of marriage, and my position on abortion, and my belief that the Earth was created in six days around 6,000 years ago.
Disturbingly, I've noticed the increasing tendency for many non-fundamentalists, non-evangelicals, non-Christians, and non-conservatives to, often sub-consciously, buy into this phoney equation of religion with fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. While accepting such a thesis is dangerous in any area of American politics, or religious and civic life, it is a particularly poisonous trend with regards to the gay rights movement.
Because so much of the debate surrounding marriage equality and other issues central for equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transpeople has been about the religious implications, it is vital that we not accept the intolerant -- and incorrect -- conception of faith that fundamentalist Christians promote. In so many debates about gay rights, the religious far-right has made questionable claims about how granting such rights would infringe on "religious freedom." Regardless of the actual ability of these claims to hold water (i.e., none), what is implied is that the religious freedoms of members of faiths who hold contrary positions on same-sex marriage and homosexuality are irrelevant.
A while back I came across a Tumblr called STFUhomophobes, which features, among other things, ignorant comments about homosexuals, often made on Facebook, along with rebuttals. There, as well as on a number of other blogs, I had noticed many assuming that being religious and being Christian were the same thing. Concerned, I sent the following response:
First, I wanted to thank you for your amazing blog. As a gay person, I've found it particularly inspiring at times when I've needed it most. I should also note that it has many times sent me careening down the path of righteous left-liberal queer RAEGGGGGGG at the religious right.
But I wanted to mention something that I've noticed becoming increasingly ubiquitous in this country (the United States). That is, many people have been equating the terms "religious" and "Christian" and, as a Jew, I feel that it is important to draw a distinction. Just as hopemanifesto (http://stfuhomophobes.tumblr.com/post/699321113/id-just-refer-to-them-as-narrow-minded-christians) noted that not all Christians are as intolerant as fundamentalist wingnuts we have to struggle against (and some even openly push for gay rights, such as Quakers), not all those who are religious oppose gay rights either.
I am a Reform Jew -- which means I'm theologically liberal -- but I'm still a pretty religious person. I believe in God, I pray on my own, and I attend services at least once a week. I'm also a co-president of my university's Reform Jewish group, which means I organize and lead religious services. But my faith is not limited to contemplating the divine: it drives me to seek justice, including justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.
Unfortunately, the Christian right wants to erase these distinctions, and many people have unwittingly been playing right into their hands. By ignoring the diversity of religion in the United States, we are allowing the Christian right to foist onto us their own particular definitions of marriage, faith, and morality as something that all religious people share. The reality could not be further from the truth, of course -- many Reform Jewish rabbis officiate at same-sex weddings, for example -- but if we don't point this out at every opportunity, we'll be traveling down a losing path, and it won't occur to people that perhaps banning same-sex marriage is itself a violation of religious freedom.
The blogmaster sent me a wonderful response, and assured me that s/he would be more careful about making such mistakes in the future.
While I'm happy about the way this particular instance resolved itself, I think that this is a great learning opportunity for all of us: make sure to only accept conservative definitions with a grain of salt until you can explore them more fully.
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