“War is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” “ignorance is strength.” Thanks to the religious right, we can update these examples from “1984’s” doublespeak to include the idea in 2012 that persecution is liberty. Religious liberty, to be exact, and nowhere is this claim more viciously – and absurdly – manifested than in the insistence by some US Christians that they are being oppressed when others try to keep them from bullying, discriminating against and sometimes literally hounding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to death. It is an astonishing claim in a nation where 85 percent of LGBT students report being verbally harassed and 40 percent report being physically harassed. Saying or doing anything to stem this epidemic, we are told, infringes on religious liberty.
The most recent incarnation of this argument has been in the uproar over Dan Savage’s (colorful, but factually unassailable) remarks on the highly selective use of the Bible to justify anti-gay bigotry, in response to which commentators have called the founder of the anti-bullying “It Gets Better” project a bully. But the cry of “religious liberty!” has been getting louder for some time now. It is the go-to argument used by the right to object to anything it doesn’t like – from access to contraception to anti-bullying legislation. It’s an attempt to silence discussion, to define issues as outside the acceptable boundaries of debate and put them beyond the reach of ordinary democratic politics.
The most shocking expression of this argument, though, comes from Scott Lively, the US evangelical who has called the gay rights movement “an evil institution” that is spreading pornography, promiscuity and child molestation, and has traveled the world to export his solutions to this menace to any legislature that will listen. He has spent the last decade whipping up anti-gay hate in Uganda – and is now complaining that he has been unfairly targeted by Uganda’s beleaguered LGBT minority because they filed a lawsuit against him in March for his efforts to further strip away their rights. In a newsletter to supporters defending his actions in Uganda, he expresses outrage over the “lengths” that Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) would go “to punish one minor American pastor.”
Lively belittles the suit – brought under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to bring claims about crimes against humanity in a US court – as based on little more than “a tiny handful of relatively minor incidents of ‘persecution'” – surely another phrase that deserves to be added to the Orwellian lexicon. Amazingly enough, he enumerates some of these “relatively minor incidents” himself: the murder of SMUG leader David Kato in 2011, the break up by police of a gay rights conference in 2012, the 2008 arrest of three AIDS activists, the case of a transperson who was sexually abused by police in 2005, the shutdown of a radio station, the outing of Ugandan LGBT activists in newspapers (one of which ran their pictures under the heading “Hang Them”).
Lively is the man who – literally – wrote the book on how to deprive LGBT people of their rights. “Redeeming the Rainbow” is a how-to guide on demonizing and criminalizing LGBT people, and in Uganda, he has been a driving force of the campaign to systematically outlaw LGBT people’s ability not only to love, but to meet and advocate to defend themselves. He has, furthermore, whipped up hatred against them that results in state repression as well as extra-legal violence. That is the very definition of persecution under international law.
Which is precisely why SMUG has gone to court to hold Lively accountable for his actions. Every day that Lively and his willing accomplices in Uganda continue to stoke the fires of anti-gay hatred increases the risk of greater repression and violence and the potential for large-scale atrocity.
But in the universe of the Christian right – the same crowd that fought in 2011 to include an exemption from Michigan’s anti-bullying law for people with “a sincerely held religious belief” – it’s Lively, the “minor American pastor,” who is the victim here.
The truth is that religious liberty is the freedom to practice your religion, not a license to oppress others. Persecution is not a right. It’s a crime.