Soapbox: What Religious Freedom Means to Me 11

THIS YEAR, my intention is to be more open and to share who I am with the world. That means being okay with vulnerability. And it means writing more about the issues and ideas that I care about and sharing my thoughts on WritingThroughLife.

This article is the start of a new “Soapbox” series, which is just what the name indicates — it’s a place for me to share my thoughts and opinions. Today’s post is about “Religious Freedom” and how it is playing out in the U.S. today.

If you would prefer to read articles about journaling, the craft of writing, memoir writing, and publishing, don’t worry. I will continue to provide quality content in these subject areas as usual. Next week’s article is about using your journal to discover and refine your passions.

This blog is about writing, and it is also about my voice and who I am — and I am, after many years, allowing myself space to speak. Read on if you are interested, otherwise, feel free to skip and read the many articles on writing that live here. 

DID YOU KNOW that January 16th is Religious Freedom Day in the U.S. and the anniversary of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom? This year, presumably because of all the political turmoil and the government shutdown, the date passed with hardly a whisper in the news.

Religious freedom is the reason our ancestors made the perilous journey across the Atlantic to America and is at the core of the many freedoms enjoyed by those of us who live in the U.S. today.

Religious freedom is the basis for the First Amendment, which begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” and is also the foundation for free speech and social justice.

What does it mean to have religious freedom? To me, it means the freedom to have and hold any spiritual belief without threat of persecution. You can worship a god or not. You can be a deist, a polytheist, or an atheist, a Christian or a Wiccan or a Satan worshiper — as long as your rituals and behaviors and beliefs don’t cause harm to anyone else.

And that’s the problem. Most religions (and therefore religious people) and even some atheists have a tedious tendency to proclaim that they are the only ones who know what life is all about and how people are supposed to live. One religion claims that you must worship on Saturday, another on Sunday. One stipulates that you can’t drink coffee (but diet Coke is okay), and another that you shouldn’t celebrate birthdays or other holidays because the roots of that holiday spring from some ancient pagan tradition. Some believe women should cover themselves head to toe to protect men from their own uncontrollable lust and that these same men should have complete authority over the women.

Whatever their religion, religious people naturally want laws that are in line with their values. The problem with this approach is that it forces everyone else to live by their beliefs, therefore impinging on (harming) the religious freedom of others.

In the U.S., in spite of many people’s apparent fear of Muslims, we are in much more danger of hardline Christian fundamentalists strategically imposing their religion and values on the nation than we are of Shariah law. This category of fundamentalists, often called Christian Nationalists in the media and closely allied with evangelical Christians, have a very real agenda that they have been working toward for years.

I understand. I was there myself, deeply and fully involved in an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian group for many years, as detailed in my memoir, Accidental Jesus Freak. I believed everything I was told by my “elders,” about our “ungodly” and “sinful” nation and how we had to vote for politicians who would make laws to “bring the nation back to God.”

The goal of these hard right fundamentalists is to break down the wall between church and state and establish a Christian theocracy. And, lest you think I’m veering off into a conspiracy theory la-la land, this strategy is all laid out in a document called the “Project Blitz Playbook,” first published in 2017.

This fundamentalist movement is supported by radical religious groups such as the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), Wallbuilders, the National Legal Foundation, United in Purpose (a Christian right strategic organization), the Heritage Foundation, the Freedom Coalition, and Family Policy Councils. These are the same organizations who have pushed to defund Planned Parenthood and deny essential medical care to women all over the U.S., making it difficult for women to have access to family planning, including birth control and abortion services. They want to roll back Roe v. Wade and rights to same-sex marriage in the misguided idea that their beliefs are the only ones that are true.

They have worked to successfully install a sympathetic president and a radical Christian vice president in the White House, judges in state and federal circuit and supreme courts, and hard rightChristian politicians in state and local governments.

The idea behind Project Blitz is to work at the state level and begin by getting less controversial measures passed — chipping away at the state-church wall with small victories. For example, politicians have used the playbook to introduce “In God We Trust” bills in many states, which would require or allow public buildings, schools, and vehicles (including police cars) to display this phrase. These bills have already been signed into law in Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Colorado, Mississipi, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The groups’ theory is that most people will consider these bills harmless. And they’re working because, with everything else going on in the world, most of us do not pay attention to these seemingly benign changes. The problem is that the bills are not harmless. They are the first step in a coordinated effort to move the U.S. away from a democracy and toward a theocracy.

Other bills these groups are pushing include one requiring public high schools to offer Christian Bible-study classes (Florida), allowing public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms (Texas), and — perhaps most insidious — “religious freedom” acts, which would allow business and agencies that receive federal funding to discriminate against LGBTQ people on religious grounds for everything from selling them goods to adoption and foster care services.

They are using the term “religious liberty” as a cudgel to control and harm others.

The rest of us — of all faiths and unfaiths — must not let that happen. Even if you are a Christian, you must understand how important it is to keep the separation of church and state sacrosanct. Otherwise, who is to stop another religious group from taking over our government and imposing their religion on you?

We must reclaim the term “religious liberty” for it’s intended meaning, which is to allow each individual to live according to their own beliefs and even change those beliefs whenever they want. That includes believing in ten gods or no gods, that life begins at conception or at birth, that there is an afterlife or no afterlife.

That means allowing women equal rights, including the right to choose when to have a family — access to birth control and access to safe abortions when needed. It means doctors not being allowed to refuse certain medical procedures just because the procedures don’t jive with their own personal beliefs — if they would let someone die because of their religion, they should stop practicing medicine. It means people who serve products to the public not being allowed to discriminate against people of color, LGBTQ, transgender, or whomever —redheads — just because they have a personal religious belief.

It means respecting others’ beliefs, even when they don’t match your own, and allowing those people to make choices for their own lives based on their own beliefs. Period.

Theocracy and democracy are fundamentally in opposition to each other.

Those of us who believe in true religious freedom must be vigilant and fight against any laws that would impose the beliefs of one group of people onto others who are not in agreement with those beliefs.

If you’re interested, see the section below for organizations that are actively working to keep our constitutional rights of religious freedom.

If you’d like to comment, all opinions are welcome — as long as they are written respectfully. Any name calling or hate-filled comments will be deleted.

A few groups who are working to keep the state-church separation intact:


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11 thoughts on “Soapbox: What Religious Freedom Means to Me

  • Linda Visman

    I am so pleased to read this post, Amber Lea. Here in Australia the religious far right are trying to do the same thing – take over and control what anyone can believe in – or not.
    People should be free to follow their own beliefs, as long as they do not deny the beliefs of others. I am an atheist, but I am happy to let Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, or any followers of a religion to practise their faith. I don’t want to be forced to follow something in which I don’t believe.I am sure that Christians would not like to be forced to follow another religion. They should therefore allow others to follow theirs without constraint.
    Thank you for showing me that there are still people in the US who are not so much under threat that they will allow others to follow their own beliefs, or non-belief.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thank you for the positive feedback, Linda. You and I are in agreement, and I think the majority of people in the U.S. are more tolerant than intolerant — but we have become complacent and take our freedoms for granted. We need to be not fearful but on guard against the extremist religious groups that, though a minority, have managed to install themselves in places of power in order to impose their beliefs on others. We need to prevent this from happening. In the U.S., we are having to rely on the lawyers and courts to uphold the constitution.

  • Barbara Womack

    I look forward to more in this series! This was such an interesting article.
    For a long time, we followed fundamentalist teachings. And, much of your life in \”Accidental Jesus Freak\” was all too familiar. Some of the names in the linked article are folks we supported at the time. We have even heard them speak. It freaks me out a little to see where that kind of teaching has led. I\’m really glad that we were somehow \”woke\” from our stupor and changed direction.
    It is my sincere hope that we can indeed get back to the true meaning of religious freedom.
    Thanks again for writing this!

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thank you for your comment, Barbara. Having been in involved in it, you know how all-encompassing that fundamentalist belief bubble is, and how people who are immersed in those teachings believe they are in the right and “have god on their side.” The irony is that believing that way leaves no room for compassion or kindness, which should be at the core of any religion. It’s dangerous. And I’m thankful, every day, that — like you — I awoke and changed direction.

  • Maya Lazarus

    Thank you, Amber, for your insightful essay. By coincidence, I was just writing in my journal this morning about religious groups and wondering whether the love they profess is only for their own followers. It seems that way, as hatefulness has blanketed the media, government, and many organizations. There’s much misogyny involved in all of this too, but that’s another issue. I learned a lot from your essay that I really wasn’t aware of. It left me more disturbed, but also more aware. I’m very glad you’re sharing more of yourself this year.

  • Melissa Montana

    Excellent point. I know many on Twitter and in real life who are terrified of Muslims imposing Sharia law, yet are content to allow Fundamentalist Christians to take their rights. The argument goes, “well, at least they are not terrorists.” I guess they never heard of abortion clinics being bombed or abortion doctors being shot. In my opinion, many of these groups (especially radical Trump supporters) have crossed the line and become a cult, worshiping a man, rather than a god. A cult has no purpose except to control people and to propagate itself. While religion can sometimes motivate people to do good, a cult has no purpose except to protect and serve it’s leader, no matter who or what is destroyed in the process. Yes, these are dangerous times. It isn’t just our freedom, it’s our lives. Those so-called “Christians” in our government, through the shutdown, are showing they don’t care who suffers or dies, as long as their leader gets his way.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Melissa, your words, “A cult has no purpose except to control people and to propagate itself . . . a cult has no purpose except to protect and serve its leader,” struck me as so true. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Amber, I’m a little late in reading this first in your Soapbox Series. Thank you for stepping up and sharing your thoughts and opinions. Having read your memoir, Accidental Jesus Freak, I already knew somewhat how you felt about certain freedoms and issues. I tend to agree with everything you’ve said here, and our home church in Portland, OR is working hard to maintain a strong body willing to work for religious freedom as designed by our forefathers. Keep up the good work. I look forward to more from the Soapbox!