Our defense of religious liberty must not be used to foster division or target LGBTQ people

Views James Martin, S.J. / July 21, 2022 Print this:
The façade of Notre Dame Law School, host of an annual religious liberty conference, seen in October 2017. (Photo courtesy of Facebook/Notre Dame School of Law)

This essay is adapted from an address delivered virtually at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome on July 21, 2022. The second-annual event was organized by Notre Dame Law School.

First off, I want to say that I am not an expert in this topic. I’m not an attorney, I’m not a legal scholar, I’m not a human rights expert, I’m not an academic and I’m not an expert in religious liberty. So I’ll offer what I can from my own experience as a Jesuit priest, as someone who tries to defend religious liberty as a matter of conscience and as someone who has, since entering the Society of Jesus 30 years ago, ministered to people on the margins: the sick, the poor, the homeless, the inmate, the gang member, the refugee and most recently, the LGBTQ person.

I’ve been asked to talk about the use and utility of social media, public advocacy and civil discourse as ways to raise awareness on the topic of religious freedom. Now, I know a little more about those topics and I’ll relate them as best I can to religious liberty.

Let’s start with the use and utility of media. As we know, it’s a two-edged sword. So, let’s look at the good edge of the sword. How many people would know about the persecution of Catholics and other Christians in Nigeria without social media? How many would know about the persecution of the Uighur people in China without social media? Far fewer, I would suggest. 

Thirty or even 20 years ago, those important stories would have been filtered through the mainstream media. While doing their best (and I’m not one to say that the mainstream media is anti-religious since I’ve known religion reporters for 20 years), they would not have been able to highlight them as much as they would have liked.

Social media can inform people about stories that might not have found space on the front pages in past years: threats to religious liberty in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China and Iran, as well as other places where Shariah law threatens religious liberty for Christians and where antisemitism threatens the lives and safety of Jewish people.

Consequently, more people today are aware of the multiple threats to religious liberty worldwide. And it’s an urgent problem: According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, 56 countries, encompassing a significant majority of the world’s people, have severe restrictions on religious freedom. Social media helps us to understand that or at least to be exposed to that. The list of countries where Christians face severe persecution is shockingly long. Social media can help more people understand this. That’s the “good edge” of the sword.

“According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, 56 countries, encompassing a significant majority of the world’s people, have severe restrictions on religious freedom.”

Meeting people where they are, even in the “cesspool”

Not long ago, a Jesuit friend said to me: “I don’t use social media at all. It’s a cesspool.” But that cesspool is, for better or worse, the place where many people get their news today. And we must meet people where they are and speak their language if we are going to speak about religious freedom, or anything for that matter. The impetus for that goes back to Jesus.

When we think about Jesus’s public ministry, we see that he went to where people were in two ways: First, we went physically, traveling to where people were. Think about the call of the first disciples in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 4:18–22; Mk 1:16-20). Jesus went to where they were by walking from Nazareth to Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee. But when Jesus arrived in Capernaum, he met them in a second way: by speaking in their language. Not just in Aramaic, but in another way. 

When he meets Peter, Andrew, James and John, Jesus does not speak to them as a carpenter might. That is, he does not say, “Let us build the House of God” or “Let us lay the foundations of God’s reign.” He does not use images from his own background as a carpenter. No. Instead he says, “Come after me and I will make you fish for people.” He speaks to them in the language of fishermen.

Even the miracle he performs for Peter in the Gospel of Luke, the Miraculous Catch of Fish, is done in Peter’s “language”—that is, fish (5:1-11). This is how I see social media: we go to where people are and speak in their language once we are there. 

By the same token, social media can indeed be a “cesspool” that divides us. Social media, mainly because it does not have to be filtered through mainstream media gatekeepers and can appeal to smaller slivers of the population, simply confirming that what they want to believe is true, has exacerbated the divisions in the United States. These divisions have hardened into two “sides,” which is a terrible way for any Christian to put it, but it is sadly accurate. And here is where the issue of religious liberty has been unfortunately misused, especially on social media.  This is part of the “bad edge” of the sword.

Balancing conscience and rights

As I see it, two things need to be balanced. On the one hand, we have the rights of religious institutions to operate within society in ways that allow them to carry out their missions in freedom. On the other hand, there are the rights of individuals, who may not agree with religious institutions and wish to live out their lives as their own consciences dictate.

In 2018, Bishop (and Cardinal-designate) Robert W. McElroy, reflecting on the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, said that the church “must defend absolutely the rights of conscience to internal belief, point to the moral warrants for the robust freedom of religious communities and outline the nuanced Catholic teaching on the rights of believers to act upon their beliefs in society.” But, he continued, “the church must be equally dedicated to defending the corresponding governmental right to—at times—restrict conscience-driven actions in pursuit of a genuine common good.” 

Pointing to Father Murray again, Bishop McElroy stressed compromise and the reminder that we must start out by assuming that the other person is acting in good faith even if, you might say, they have no faith. This is a hallmark of civil discourse, and as an aside, an essential part of Jesuit spirituality (in fact, the Presupposition to St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises) and something lacking in the United States and in other places. We move almost instantly into ad hominem attacks, without even listening to the other person, much less the other “side.”

Religious liberty and LGBTQ people

To that point, in the past few years in the United States, the question of religious liberty on social media often has meant less that we defend the rights of people who are unable to worship as they would choose without fear of government reprisal, and has meant more that a person’s “side” ought to be protected from things they won’t tolerate, don’t agree with or sometimes just don’t like. 

“In the past few years in the United States, the question of religious liberty on social media often has meant less that we defend the rights of people who are unable to worship … but has meant more that a person’s “side” ought to be protected from things they won’t tolerate, don’t agree with or sometimes just don’t like.” 

In my own ministry, I see religious liberty being invoked, especially on social media, mainly against LGBTQ people. Usually when I see a social media posting, it is not about someone who cannot worship or who lacks the kind of religious freedom that John Courtney Murray or the Vatican II statement on religious liberty “Dignitatis Humanae” spoke about, but rather it is opposed to same-sex marriage, or as my LGBTQ friends remind me it should be now called, marriage.

This is not an argument for or against same-sex marriage. Rather, it is a reminder of how the divisions in our country have hardened us to using even something like religious liberty as a divider, rather than a uniter.

That brings us to public advocacy. One thing that should challenge us in our advocacy for religious liberty is how the advocacy on which many American Catholics focus is less about our duty to advocate in favor of people truly unable to worship (and are often at risk to their lives), but to advocate against the civil liberties of LGBTQ people 

It’s important for people to be able to follow their consciences. A Catholic doctor or nurse who is opposed to abortion should never be forced to assist on one. By the same token, people’s focus on what is an affront to their religion these days has ended up, at least on social media, mainly on LGBTQ issues. 

I’m not sure how that happened — maybe simple homophobia — but it’s happened. We see businesspeople who invoke religious liberty to refuse service to gay people. And it is the selectivity of this focus that really rankles LGBTQ people. 

What do I mean? Well, at least in the United States, Catholics or Christians usually don’t refuse to serve, nor should they refuse to serve, non-Catholics or non-Christians whose practices could be taken as a threat to their beliefs. If a customer came into a bakery and ordered a cake to mark a non-Catholic religious ceremony or occasion, like the ordination of a Protestant minister, the end of Ramadan or a bar mitzvah, I doubt that many Catholic bakers would refuse to serve them. This refusal is unlikely even though members of these religious groups could be viewed as not supporting or even opposing certain Catholic beliefs: papal authority, the Trinity, the Incarnation and so on.

“It is the LGBTQ person who has become the target of our public advocacy in the church in this country.”

Again, they should not refuse these people service. Refusal of service on the grounds of religious liberty would be rightly condemned as discriminatory. But somehow it is the LGBTQ person who has become the target of our public advocacy in the church in this country. 

The more that actors on social media focus on LGBTQ people as the only ones whose lives are not fully conforming with church teaching, and therefore the only ones whose civil rights (and in the case of transgender people, their very existence) should be resisted, the more we risk increasing hostility against this group of people already marginalized and persecuted 

While we’re speaking about liberties, it is important to note that in 11 countries you can be executed for being gay and in 70 you can be jailed. So an unforeseen effect of this kind of public advocacy for religious liberty may be the further persecution of a population that is, in some countries, every bit as targeted as religious minorities. If we continue to focus on the LGBTQ person, it will dramatically water down our public advocacy on important topics of religious liberty, because it will not be seen as public advocacy. It will be seen as bullying. 

That leads finally to the question of civil discourse. Here, again, we need to reframe our conversation on social media and, frankly, on all media. If religious liberty continues to be used as a weapon against married same-sex couples, many people, including LGBTQ people and people of goodwill who know them as their family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers and co-religionists, will not see this discourse as civil in any way. 

So I would invite my fellow Catholics to reflect on what this kind of focus social media and elsewhere does not simply to the LGBTQ Catholic and not simply to the LGBTQ person, but to all people interested in the larger issues of conscience, religious liberty and freedom for all people.

James Martin, S.J.

James Martin, SJ, is editor at large of America Media.

All articles by James Martin, S.J.

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