The adjective “religious” is unlikely to sound strange when modifying either liberty or tyranny. Neither combination has the ring of oxymoron. Why? Because, religions and the belief systems that undergird them have been used throughout human history both in the cause of freedom and to justify all manner of social tyranny.
In the United States, what is called “freedom of religion” is enshrined in our Constitution. People are free to believe as they choose to believe and worship as they please to worship. People are also free to express those beliefs as long as the mode of that expression does not burden other citizens too heavily. We make some accommodations for one another’s beliefs; e.g., respect for one another’s religious holidays, prayer discipline or the like, in order that we all be able to go about our daily lives in comity.
Our society is pluralistic and governed by laws that are the product of civic debate and legislative action. This societal debate is engaged in by individuals of various religious convictions. The debate, however, is secular, hopefully rational and in pursuit of the common good; i.e., the good of all.
The three major Western religious traditions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are all, what is known as, revealed religions. A revealed religion is a religion the tenets of which can only be known by being revealed to human beings by the Divine. Put another way, the content of these religions is not accessible to the human mind and its experience of the finite world without Divine revelation. Once spiritual truth is revealed to us, we can, according to these traditions, use the God given gift of reason to deepen our understanding of the revelation and its importance for human life.
All of these traditions therefore require the belief in a God who reveals him/herself to us and communicates with us in various ways: most often through classic texts like the Torah, the Gospels or the Koran. These traditions all see humankind, without revelation, as walking in a kind of darkness which can never be sufficiently illuminated by the light of reason or the intuition of the human heart on its own.
Moral and ethical debate can and does take place in the public square without reference to revealed knowledge. Generally, there is little difficulty in agreeing about things like the undesirability of random killing or stealing without reference to the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. Consequently, we can enact laws against murder and grand theft essentially using reason alone.
Religious people may refer to their belief systems in the process of secular debate and identify instances in which their belief and secular reason coincide. This coincidence even makes it easier for the Western believer to feel comfortable in our pluralistic world.
There are occasions, however, when reason and revelation seem to come to different conclusions. At the moment, the rights of gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people are being placed in opposition to the rights of religious believers who feel that living as a gay, lesbian, bi or transgender person is sinful and contrary to the will of God. These believers declare that it offends their conscience to normalize what they see as Divinely proscribed behavior and that consequently they should not be required to provide services to these people and thereby demonstrate tacit approval of sin. They see any such requirement as an infringement of their religious liberty.
For religious believers, at least in the three main Western traditions, God is the supreme authority and arbiter of what is right and wrong. For non-believers there is no God to function as a supreme authority or to reveal what is right or wrong to humans. In a pluralistic society, believers and nonbelievers have equal standing and if there is to be social debate on appropriate social regulations the interlocutors must be able to address one another in terms that are understandable and meaningful.
For a believer to declare that this or that is right or wrong because God says so may be understandable to the nonbeliever in terms of what the words mean. However, such a statement lacks real meaning for the nonbeliever because it attributes authority to something nonexistent. Nonexistent beings do not do, say, think or feel anything. They are nonexistent.
The nonbeliever can, for her part, ground her conversation in a rational inquiry into the question at hand without reference to any data outside of natural experience, scientific knowledge, rational thought and respectful concern for other human beings and the natural world in general. These very same sources of knowledge and processes of thought are available to believers.
Believers and nonbelievers therefore share access to the language of reason, science and human solidarity. They can converse meaningfully with one another in these terms. Believers can think that there is “more going on” and hold onto notions of the Divine; but, at the level of meaningful social dialogue in a pluralistic society the only conversation to be had between all parties is the secular one.
This secular conversation is the one that concluded that religious belief should be respected because it meant so much to those who believed not because any particular Divine revelation was in fact true. We therefore make those accommodations alluded to above even in serious matters like the defense of the nation to which we allow citizens to conscientiously object.
We accommodate for religious belief as long as that accommodation does not overly burden citizens who do not share that belief and as long as that accommodation does not infringe on the rights of others.
The State of Indiana has recently passed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the State of Arkansas is following close behind. This law makes it possible for individual believers to refuse to provide business services to individuals who because of their sexual orientation offend the conscience of these believers. These believers argue that to require them to treat gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people like anyone else is to require them to violate their religious convictions. In short these believers seek an accommodation.
As with any other religious belief accommodation, the question is whether granting this accommodation would be reasonable and nondiscriminatory in the sense of treating fellow citizens with inequity–as not equals. In our society, we have decided that there is no reasonable grounds for discriminating against others on the basis of race, creed, gender or national origin. From a secular perspective, sexual orientation is no different from any of these other grounds upon which people are not to be discriminated against. Believers remain free to believe what they want and it may offend the conscience of some to have to have normal business dealings with same-sex oriented individuals. But, the offense to the conscience of these individuals grounded, as it is, on a sectarian belief the objective truth or falsity of which is unascertainable via natural reason cannot trump the rights of any citizen to equal treatment in the public square.
Religious liberty in the service of discrimination like this turns the notion of freedom on its head and makes of religious freedom the exact thing the framers sought to avoid: religious tyranny.