'Religious freedom' is not just for Christian conservatives. Liberals must take it back.

A nun in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 21, 2021.
A nun in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 21, 2021.

Religious freedom seems to be on a winning streak.

Victories are piling up at the Supreme Court: for churches to reopen contrary to coronavirus restrictions, for a publicly funded faith-based foster care agency to exclude care-givers who are gay, for Christian employers to enjoy exemptions from having to provide certain contraceptives in worker health plans.

Politicians and activists are aggressively asserting religious liberty in their fight against LGBTQ acceptance, public health measures, and other perceived threats. One of the most novel claims: a lawsuit by a Catholic school claiming that anti-COVID-19 masks hide faces made in God’s image and, thus, constitute a violation of the religious liberty of those forced to wear them.

But something is off when the New York Times publishes headlines like the recent “What the Supreme Court Did for Religion.” As with so much other media coverage and public discourse around this matter, there needs to be a rewrite for the sake of specificity. It’s not what the high court and political actors are doing for “religious freedom.” It’s what they’re doing, for the most part, for conservative Christianity.

Liberal stands are rooted in belief

We need to remember that religious freedom belongs to all – not just one faith or one side in our ongoing culture clash.

More liberals of faith and conscience ought to be like Jamie Manson and invoke religious freedom themselves. A graduate of Yale Divinity School (my employer) and a former columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, Manson is President of Catholics for Choice, which advocates for the availability of legal, safe abortion for those who need it.

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Contrary to the familiar and simplistic plot line – religious folks are against abortion; secular people are for it – Manson does not advocate for legal abortion in spite of her Catholic faith. She does so because of it.

Political appropriations of Catholic teaching “are causing enormous suffering for women,” Manson explained to me. “Especially poor women and women of color. I object to my faith being used in that way. It’s about human dignity, human freedom, which Catholicism promotes.”

Protest over a Supreme Court case in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 22, 2020.
Protest over a Supreme Court case in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 22, 2020.

Do abortion bans violate her own religious freedom? “Absolutely,” Manson says. “Abortion bans are part of larger agenda to limit sexual education, to limit contraceptive access, to limit certain medical procedures. The theology behind these is harmful – a theology that wants to limit women’s freedom, wants women to have strict gender-based roles, and says women’s primary vocation is to be mothers. These absolutely infringe on my religious freedom, which is about freedom of belief and freedom from belief.”

Manson is right about freedom from belief: One person’s religion should not be enacted into law in ways that strongarm another citizen into living in accordance with beliefs they don’t share. But the especially interesting part of the conversation – one that gets too little airtime –goes beyond protection from other peoples’ beliefs and takes account of the deep sense of religious and ethical conviction that invariably drives liberal positions and behavior.

Christian ethics: Stop using religion to fight COVID-19 vaccine. Taking it is the Christian thing to do.

Take the “faithful providers” – abortion practitioners whose stories Manson’s organization is elevating to counteract the conservative conceit that the anti-abortion position is the Christian position. One of a half-dozen doctors featured on the Catholics for Choice website, Albert G. Thomas is a New York-based OB-GYN, and a Catholic, who sees himself as providing urgently needed support to patients.

“These particular individuals were really torn about undergoing the procedure, but they either had a medical reason or a very strong social reason for why they needed an abortion,” Thomas says. “They didn’t need me to be pompous or to judge them. They needed someone who could hold their hand and tell them it was going to be okay... I think that’s what God would want us to do.”

Don't run from a constitutional benefit

Safe abortion is hardly the only liberal good pursued out of conscience and conviction. When liberals of faith take public stands against threats to flourishing life, like racism and climate change, it’s more than appropriate for them to cite the beliefs that fuel them. It’s incumbent upon the government and public to accept them as sincere expressions of religious conviction.

When unjust law and policy prevent religious liberals from living out their faith – whether it’s a pastor committed to supporting desperate migrants, or a gay couple called to care for foster kids, or a trans person whose safety and God-endowed dignity are violated by humiliating bathroom bills – they, too, ought to invoke their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.

Religious liberty for all: Let women athletes wear unitards, and hijabs.

Not to say that all conservative religious people should be forced to live as liberals. That would be as wrong as the inverse. The reality is that rights clash and worldviews collide. The challenge is to find peaceful resolutions and accommodations for everyone to the greatest extent possible while still maintaining a functioning society.

For religious and secular liberals, it’s understandable if the very sound of that term “religious freedom” sets off alarm bells. But instead of running from it, liberals of faith and ethical conviction ought to embrace religious freedom for themselves. Not merely to confound and counteract the religious freedom claims of conservatives (although that’s a worthwhile secondary benefit) but to enjoy a constitutional benefit that is rightfully theirs.

Religious freedom is not a conservative Christian thing, and it’s time we stop acting like it is.

A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker writes on religion and values in public life. He is the author of “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.” Follow him on Twitter: @krattenmaker

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Liberals of faith must be clear that religion fuels their policy views