Friday, November 9, 2012

Voters Exercise Their Liberty of Conscience at the Polls

By Becky Garrison 
Originally posted 11/8/12 at The Washington Post
Partygoers react as balloons fall at an Election Night party in Baltimore on Nov. 6, 2012, after voters passed a referendum approving same sex marriage in Maryland. (AP) 

Over at Religion Dispatches, Senior Editor Sarah Posner suggests a religious realignment is underway with white religious conservative representing a coalition in decline, while President Obama has a more diverse one, made up of various religious and non-religious voters, whites, blacks, and Latinos. For example, as Billy Graham celebrated his 94th birthday the day after the election, he received the unwelcome gift of being designated one of the losers in Religion News Services’ assessment of the 2012 election.

Instead, voters exercised what religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams, termed “liberty of conscience,”the notion that one’s conscience must be free act on one’s own without the fear of state sanctions. Not only did voters re-elect the first president who supported the civil rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry, but voters made history in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington when they became the first states where voters endorsed marriage equality. The other six states and the District of Columbia that previously approved same-sex marriages enacted these laws either through court rulings or legislation. Also, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) became the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate.

Joseph Ward, director of Believe Out Loud, an online network that empowers Christians to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, reflects on the election results. The past four years have been some of the best years for LGBT civil rights in our country.
We’ve seen so many new religious and political leaders take a bold stand in support of LGBT equality during this election season, and now the electorate in four states has done the same. They made history last night by showing that in America, a majority of voters in those states will not discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people

Furthermore, even though evangelical entities such as Christianity Today, the magazine founded by Billy Graham, agreed with Rep. Todd Akin (R-Ind.) and Republican candidate Richard Mourdock (R-Mo.) that ultimately, rape is a gift from God, voters chose to vote for candidates that will continue to protect women’s rights to control their own health care decisions. Also, initiatives failed in Florida that would have set new limits on abortion rights and repealed the state’s ban on public funding for churches and other religious organizations.

I see no sign that these Christian warriors are prepared to give up their fight to defend their version of a Christian America where “religious liberties” will only be secured for those who subscribe to a version of God that seems unduly obsessed with issues relating to human sexuality. They appear to be oblivious to the Bob Jones University vs. United States U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which established the precedent that religious organizations that choose to avail themselves of the benefits of the government such as federal funding must follow civil laws.

Along those lines, as the IRS demonstrated in 1999 when they rejected the Christian Coalition’s 10-year battle to win tax exempt status faith-based organization who engage in partisan politics could lose this government benefit. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State notes that this organization received far more reports of dubious election intervention this season than any year since 1992 when AU began monitoring church electioneering activities in a formal way. An editorial in The Los Angeles Times notes how the IRS has yet to censor or punish those churches who participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”even though some preachers sent copies of their sermons to the IRS.

The question remains if enough Americans will continue to fight for their right to exert their liberty of conscience. Will those who voted down these latest endeavors to deny people their basic civil human rights continue to fight against measures that seek to merge the evangelical church with the U.S. government? What prevents us all from demanding an end to the annual National Prayer Breakfast and other state sanctioned religious events that continue to advance a Christ centered brand of American exceptionalism? 
Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.

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