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This Trumpian ‘religious freedom’ agenda is against my religion

A US State Department commission is contorting religious principle to limit women’s reproductive freedom and denigrate LGBTQI+ folks
A monitor displays the words "Commission on Unalienable Rights" behind US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
A monitor displays the words "Commission on Unalienable Rights" behind US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Don’t expect me to play along.

Clearly, the Trump Administration has no problem using language to deceive. That’s the choice they keep making. But when they contort my religious tradition to conform to their bigoted and sexist agenda — all in the name of religious freedom — I cannot keep silent.

I’m speaking specifically about the US State Department’s so-called “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” one of the most dangerous bodies you’ve never heard of.

Last week, the commission issued recommendations outlining its perverse reimagination of the concept of “human rights” for the purpose of guiding America’s foreign policy, drawing on what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ominously calls “new thinking.”

Stacked with appointees who use religious values to openly oppose reproductive freedom and the basic dignity of LGBTQI+ people, the commission has been prioritizing the views of the most extreme religious conservatives. With their recommendations, they’re poised to enshrine this bigotry into US foreign policy.

The commission aims to elevate “religious freedom” above other human rights. But as a rabbi, I don’t buy it.

For progressive Jews like me, there is a tragic irony here in hiding behind “religious freedom” to discriminate. On the one hand, the commissioners are angling to establish freedom of religious expression as the most essential human right; on the other hand, their idiosyncratic understanding of Biblical text comes at the expense of the rights of both women and trans folks. To assert religious freedom as an ultimate right, but then interpret the Hebrew Bible to persecute women and queer folks, is an ugly distortion of Jewish texts for a right-wing political goal.

And it restricts my religious freedom, as a Jew, to interpret my own texts — texts which demand justice and equality for all.

Of course, Pompeo and the commissioners are entitled to interpret Biblical text in whatever manner they see fit. But let’s be clear: they don’t have the right to declare that Biblical text, sacred to Jews for millennia, denies the inherent dignity of human beings.

To do so is a restriction of the religious freedom millions of Jews all over the world and a grotesque perversion of my religious values. In fact, many Jews — as well as members of other religions — see in their religious text a fundamental human rights message at the very beginning of the book of Genesis: all humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Note the language. Not Jews. Not Muslims or Hindus or Christians, for that matter. Not men, or heterosexuals. Every single human being is divine.

According to this reading, the inherent worth of human beings can’t be revoked or rescinded. This is a bedrock principle for all streams of Judaism. It’s why I teach and speak about the Black trans women who were the originators of Pride month, even though I’m neither Black nor trans. It’s why I advocate on behalf of women’s reproductive freedom, though I’m not a woman. When the commissioners interpret religious texts to denigrate trans folks and women, they deny me the right to interpret my texts as a clarion call for justice and equality.

Which is why I take the creation of this commission personally.

So far, Secretary Pompeo’s commission has flouted human rights tradition in its hearings, elevating the free expression of their exclusionary agenda as the most “unalienable” of rights — all in the name of religious freedom.

The free expression clause is firmly embedded in our First Amendment. But make no mistake: Your free expression stops at the border of the infringement upon the dignity of your neighbor. It stops at the border of establishing a preferred set of religious values by which the rest of us must live, the diametric opposite of religious freedom.

The limitation of women’s reproductive freedom and the denigration of queer folks by the commissioners — whether regarding sexuality or gender expression — are both impediments to my religious freedom as a Jew. Millions of Jews, and almost all the major movements of Judaism, understand the duty to honor every human being to include a respect for reproductive rights and the divinity of LGBTQI+ people.

Of course, those who busy themselves denying the dignity of others often claim those folks are nefariously pushing for “special rights.”

This, for sure, has it exactly backwards. In drawing a narrow circle, designed to limit the rights of entire segments of humanity, the commissioners claim for themselves the power to place their neighbors outside the boundaries of full citizenship. Is this not the definition of “special rights,” circumscribing religious values according to hateful standards, privileging cruelly narrow interests over the well-being of millions of global citizens?

That this self-styled “Commission on Unalienable Rights” deigns to declare its bigoted agenda to be an expression of “religious freedom” is, to be sure, a linguistic deception of Orwellian proportions.

As the commission elevates religious freedom, ask yourself: What’s religious about embracing hate? What’s religious about turning LGBTQI+ folks into pariahs? What’s religious about denying life-saving healthcare to women and girls? And what gives this group the right to define this cruel agenda as a religious one.

The word “religious” means something urgent and essential. For millions of religious people, it means standing for redemption, wholeness, the inherent holiness of all human beings.

The Trump administration stands hell-bent on stripping millions of their basic dignity. But I’ll be damned if I stand silent as it attempts to do so in the name of religion.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass. He serves on the advisory boards of the Jewish Alliance of Law and Social Action (JALSA) and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Acton with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.
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