A War on Religion

by Johnny Townsend

Religious conservatives often accuse secular or inclusive people of conducting a “War on Christmas!” or “War on Religion!” or “War on God!” I would rephrase that. I and many others are anxiously engaged in conducting a war against ignorance, a war against bigotry and selfishness and greed and short-sightedness, a war against oppression and cruelty. I’ve certainly never protested altruism and compassion and love. If religious conservatives feel threatened by the sins I do address, hiding behind the name of God is like hiding inside a Trojan horse.

“Onward, Christian Soldiers” certainly takes on a different meaning in that light.

I admit that religious conservatives and I see the same actions quite differently, and this is unfortunately the biggest part of the problem. As a Mormon missionary working to convert apostate Catholics in Rome, I was taught (and therefore believed) I was “helping” people.

It wasn’t until I returned home and learned about Baptist missionaries trying to convert unsaved Mormons in Salt Lake that I began to understand the concept of cultural imperialism and different points of view. I resisted my heathen professors at the University of New Orleans as they tried to pry my mind open with their liberal, decadent ideas. But—“Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!”—some of those ideas did eventually seep in.

Why did I care if someone chose not to have children? The species was hardly at risk of disappearing through lack of reproduction.

Why did I care if someone chose not to marry?

Why did I care if someone preferred watching a movie over going to church? If they liked tea or coffee? If they wanted a tattoo?

What did I care if someone chose a different course of study, a different style of clothes, a different career, a different life?

The more I thought about it, the more diversity of thought and action I did want.

If Mormons could moan, “What would happen if everyone were gay?” I could just as easily ask, “What would happen if everyone sold insurance? What would happen if everyone became an apostle?”

Society could not function with that kind of homogeneity.

Even as a die-hard, faithful Mormon, I spoke up for gays. If they were sinning, they had every right to do so. When a friend in Elders’ Quorum said he thought gays should be put in prison for sodomy, I asked, “And what do you think they’ll do there?”

Even as a dedicated Sabbath-day observer, I thought it wrong to enact “blue laws” that forbid businesses to remain open on Sunday. That meant Jews couldn’t do any shopping on Saturday, their Sabbath, and were also denied the opportunity to shop on my Sabbath. Same for Seventh-Day Adventist Christians.

Even as a believing, active Latter-day Saint, I assured a young woman in the Single Adults group that her decision to pursue medical school and marry a man who preferred to stay home and take care of their children was a perfectly good decision and not to let priesthood leaders tell her otherwise. As if she needed me or any other man to validate this or any other decision in the first place.

Once I left the Church in my mid-twenties, my views shifted dramatically, and my former “open-mindedness” proved insufficient to the task of battling oppression in all its cultural, physical, financial, and religious forms.

When my ex-Mormon husband became a Trotsky socialist, I resisted many of the ideas he brought home. I still do.

But one thing is clear—some form of socialism is necessary not only for relieving the oppression waged against billions of humans but also for preserving life itself as we face the ultimate global battle for survival.

As a missionary, I learned to take good wherever I found it. Some aspects of Neapolitan culture were good and some bad. Some aspects of Roman culture were good and some bad. When adding the good I found in Italy to the good I found in New Orleans culture, in rural Mississippi culture, in Mormon culture, in gay culture, I surrounded myself with the best set of ethics I could.

I find some good in Jesuit culture, in the culture of Reform Judaism, in Buddhism, in liberation theology, in the Unitarian philosophy, and elsewhere in religious traditions from around the world.

But when religious conservatives leave our “salvation” to an invisible god, they not only give up their own obligation to act but also impede others from acting as well. They are, in effect, conducting a “War on Humanity,” a “War on Climate,” a “War on Life Itself.” When they continue to promote behaviors resulting in an accelerated progression of the current mass extinction event, they have chosen a position I can’t ignore.

Yes, this is war, a devastating civil war, where we end up fighting lifelong friends and beloved aunts and nephews, our favorite bishops, sometimes even employers and leaders of our own political parties.

But it’s essential that those of us fighting oppression and exploitation prevail. Let’s not shy away from labels like “Liberal!” “Socialist!” “Godless!” or anything else religious conservatives might throw at us. We cannot abdicate our duty, our responsibility, and our opportunity.

The Book of Mormon tells us that starting a war is never justified. So let’s remember—we didn’t start this war. Religious conservatives did.

In the Mishnah, Rabbi Tarfon tells us that, “It is not [our] responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but [we] are not free to desist from it either.” But the stakes are higher now than perhaps ever before in the history of our species. We cannot accept slow, incremental change. If the side of reason and compassion doesn’t prevail, both sides of this religious war will lose.

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