This piece is adapted from my research and notes for the speech I gave this past Sunday, May 20th, at the Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference. The talk was entitled “Push and Pull: The Role of Religion in Social Justice.” The titles of the previous two pieces, as well as this one, have been altered thanks to the very apt observation by Pseudonym on the US-centric nature of my writing.
Progress on LGBT rights within religion aside, why has religion generally not been great for women’s and LGBT rights as opposed to those of African-Americans?
There are two main factors at play here. First, Christianity is less strongly against the rights of those who aren’t white than against the rights of women and people who are not straight. The Bible doesn’t quite say “thou shalt oppress those with dark skin,” but many of its rules and sayings about women and the non-straight are quite oppressive. The second is that religion’s role as a community-building force has been waning significantly. Americans are far more likely to church hop due to the increased frequency of relocation or simple choice. This means that they are subject to far less of the social pressure that they would have experienced in the past. In addition, people are considering themselves “spiritual, but not religious” or its cousin, “lovers of Jesus who hate religion” in ever-growing numbers.
This exodus from church and dilution of the power of organized religion has has another effect: the loudest, best-funded, most politically-active, and most organized churches are often the more conservative ones. Further amplifying this effect is the fact that fundamentalist belief makes for strong community ties — feeling that you’re outside the mainstream, that you’re oppressed, and that you need to fight against the entirety of the rest of society is a great way to unite people.
It can be hard to compete with the Christian Right given the fragmentation among those opposed to it. Those of us who are non-religious are generally not fans of the religious in general, even those who are pro-LGBT. This is not all the fault of the non-religion, as progressive religious folk often do not speak up except to protest when the non-religious claim that the Christian Right version of their religion is Christianity. Instead of speaking up most loudly against what they other Christians’ misuse of their faith, much of their efforts seem to focus on the NALTing.
In a world that lacks central dogma and has little to force us to like each other, how are we to organize like churches? The answer is that we cannot, at least not in the same way. Even churches cannot be central forces in the way in which they used to be. Instead, activism has become more grassroots and more reliant on a multitude of voices. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as we do not forget to to listen to each other and corroborate when appropriate. If Dan Savage can get a devout Catholic to say that he is right, there must be some hope.