Just in time for Passover, that perennial blockbuster about a persecuted people struggling to free itself from the house of bondage, our hunger for sensational stories of religious intolerance was sated this week by a double serving of men of faith behaving badly. In Indiana, a state law designed to safeguard religious freedoms stirred controversy, with everyone from Hillary Clinton to Miley Cyrus crying out that the legislation is little more than a thinly veiled attempt to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers. And on HBO, a new documentary about Scientology presented the Creed of Cruise as a sinister, violent cult designed to prey on the weak of heart and mind, a cabal of conspirators that has thrived largely due to its ability to muscle the authorities into exempting it from taxation. Spend too much time breathing in the fumes of the Internet outrage machine, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that we still had Pharaohs among us, mighty, imperious and bent on imposing their will on those yearning to be free.
Reality, thankfully, is far airier. Everywhere from Bloomington to Beverly Hills, our freedoms are doing just fine. The only thing that’s plagued is our religious imagination, that empathic quality necessary for envisioning a role for faith in public life. And that’s a big problem.
Consider the case of Indiana. The state’s law is a version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which that bearded zealot Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993 after it enjoyed the support of all but three members of the Senate. Indiana is the 20th state to pass a local version of the RFRA, as the act is commonly known, into law; it was preceded by hotbeds of religious extremism like Connecticut and Rhode Island. No one cared then; why should we care now?
Because, said the law’s opponents, Indiana’s version of RFRA extended religious protections to private disputes as well, which means, say, that if a pious pastry chef in Terre Haute is commissioned to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, he could refuse on the grounds that his faith prohibits blessing gays with buttercream icing. To safeguard against such an alarming scenario, the state legislature, after much pressure, amended the law to exclude protections to anyone refusing “to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing” to anyone based on “race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.”
It’s a soothing clarification, but one that may not have been altogether necessary. Under RFRA, anyone seeking protection on religious grounds has to prove that his or her core beliefs have been compromised. A Christian could compellingly argue, for example, that providing his employees with access to the morning-after pill stands in fundamental contradiction to his beliefs; this is what David Green, the owner of the Hobby Lobby chain of DIY stores, did in his now-famous—and successful—lawsuit. But search Corinthians as diligently as you will and you’re still not likely to find anything that might keep a florist from arranging a bouquet of peonies for two women who wish to exercise their state-given right and get married.
This isn’t to say that the original law’s purpose wasn’t to give weight to religious considerations when faced with other competing interests; writing in The Wall Street Journal, Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence stated clearly that the law’s passage was influenced by the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling. Nor is it to say that no business would ever use the new law—even with the existing amendment in place—to try and discriminate against customers, and some critics argue that the language of the Indiana law—covering religious freedoms that are “likely to be” compromised—is too vague. Still, federal and state public accommodations laws are likely to prove a major hurdle to any future attempts to invoke RFRA as a reason to refuse someone service, which may help explain why, in three decades of federal and state laws, such attempts have been without precedent. More important, any business practicing discrimination will face the ultimate arbiter, the market: In his op-ed, Gov. Pence wrote that he would never frequent a business that refused to serve gay customers, and it’s highly likely that many, many others, in Indiana and elsewhere, would feel the same way.
And yet, many wagged their fingers at Indiana this week, including the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, who came out publicly in support of gay marriage long years after so many of us took to the streets to march for this fundamental civil right. “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today,” Hillary Clinton tweeted. “We shouldn’t discriminate against ppl bc of who they love #LGBT.” That the law has nothing to do with love, and that it is far, at least for anyone with a dollop of intellectual honesty, from a clear act of discrimination against the LGBT community was beside the point.
Why, then, the uproar? You may want to look for clues in Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The well-made film is a real-life thriller, and if you want to know whodunit you needn’t look further than its subtitle. The movie’s larger point isn’t that Scientology is particularly pernicious—although it goes to great lengths to portray its leader, David Miscavige, as a tiny, tanned tyrant—but rather that all faith is or may become so, what with its being so absolute and all. Scott Foundas, Variety’s chief film critic, reflected the same sentiment when he called Going Clear “a great film about the dangers of blind faith.”
It’s a strange point to make about a film whose most prominent interviewees are longtime adherents of the faith who have chosen to leave the church. In lengthy, candid confessions, these men and women, even the ones with the biggest axes to grind, describe decades of faith that was anything but blind. They talk about feeling baffled by rituals, confused by the religion’s secret dogma, and put off by some of its more demanding practices. In other words, they sound exactly like every other current or former believer in America, struggling to balance the hawkish skepticism of modern life with the radical receptivity every religion requires as a precondition. Watching the documentary, you suspect that the only reason these lapsed believers are dramatically lit and seated in front of a camera is that their particular faith happens to have a relatively brief history; its foundational myths still haven’t hardened into gospel, and its originators have not yet transcended into sainthood.
You could subject any Mormon to allegations of a Founding Father suspected of charlatanism, accost any Catholic with tough questions about excommunication, and question any Jew about believing in a book filled with improbable miraculous stories. If Scientology seems strange to us, it’s because it’s still a religion busy being born, embryonic and turbulent and closely connected to its charismatic founding fathers. In this, it’s no different from any other religion, and like any other religion, it, too, should face scrutiny from outside observers wondering what it’s all about. And if it is indeed a major world religion destined to thrive millennia from now, such scrutiny will only make it stronger by forcing it to clearly define its practices and beliefs.
But any scrutiny ought also to be purposeful and respectful, not dismissive, and it should attempt to weigh Scientology on the same scale we use to take the measure of all other religions. The Scientological story about the evil galactic overlord Xenu and his atomic bombs—which the film presents as one of its most damning pieces of evidence against the religion—is not any more or less incredible than the tale of the Red Sea splitting in half or that bit about Moses summoning a downpour of frogs or any wonderful story about Jesus. Incredible stories are an indispensable part of religion; they challenge us to push past our reservations and into different planes of consciousness. Believers understand this, which is why even those of us who accept these tall tales process them first and foremost as metaphor. I can believe that my soul was physically present at Sinai and still read the story of the Exodus not as pure history but as a narrative designed to inspire me to contemplate liberty, justice, and oppression. And I can do all that while remaining committed to the standards of rational inquiry in other realms of life that do not involve the metaphysical. Faith does not turn its adherents blind; instead, it allows them to entertain several seemingly incompatible ideas, urging them to strike a balance between what they are willing to embrace a priori and what they demand to see empirically proven. This complexity is one of faith’s chief pleasures, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to those who can only imagine it as a prison.
Which brings us back to Indiana. Those alarmed over its RFRA legislation are vexed in part because they assume the worst about the men and women most likely to claim religious protection these days. In its editorial about the Indiana law, the New York Times was frank in admitting that the fault lies not in the law’s logic but in its likely champions: “Religious-freedom laws,” the Times wrote, “which were originally intended to protect religious minorities from burdensome laws or regulations, have become increasingly invoked by conservative Christian groups.” When you cannot imagine the faithful as anything but mindless boobs more likely to respond to coercion and hate than to reason, you’re likely to see the question of religious freedom not as an absolute good worthy of protection no matter who its benefactors but as just one component of a practical political worldview, colored by other considerations. This is why the Times—as well as many, one suspects, of those crying foul over the Indiana law—is willing to accuse local conservative legislators of harboring the most benighted schemes while simultaneously cheering on talks with the murderous theocracy in Iran. When professed in Indianapolis by domestic political opponents, religion is a tool of oppression. When expressed in Isfahan with calls of “Death to America,” it’s just a quaint cultural affectation.
It’s time we rejected this lazy relativism. Luckily, we’ve the perfect story of universal religious freedom coming our way this weekend at the Seder. May it, and the four mandatory glasses of wine required for its proper telling, leave us all a bit more imbued with divinely inspired empathy, imagination, and joy.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.