National Commentary

Anything But Straight: The Perils of Public Religion

When a devout Muslim taxi driver refuses to take you where you want to go because you have luggage containing alcohol, the only appropriate response is, “shut up and drive.”

Such a situation recently occurred at the Minneapolis International airport, with the driver transforming his cab into a mini-caliphate. Following this incident, in the same city, a Christian bus driver demanded that she only drive busses without ads for the GLBT magazine Lavender that read: “Unleash Your Inner Gay.” Initially, the Metro Transit acquiesced to the absurd request, but soon reversed course and said that they were “not persuaded that advertising, per se, infringes on religious practices.”

We have also seen busybody pharmacists who think they can interfere with the private doctor/patient relationship by refusing to fill contraceptive prescriptions. These puffed-up pill dispensers call this a “conscience clause.” Yet, no one forced these nosey nabobs to ingest the pills, thus not violating their personal beliefs.

The taxi driver, pharmacists and bus driver are essentially arguing that when in their presence, the public must submit to their beliefs. They also assert that their personal religious liberty is impinged upon if they cannot impose their will on others. This line of thinking is oppressive, incoherent and dangerous to the cohesion and unity of this nation.

Our duty as American citizens is to support the right for people to believe whatever they want. If they want to pray to aliens that is their right, just as it is the right of a person to have no belief at all. What these spiritual supremacists want to do, however, is go a step further and compel others to respect or give deference to their faith.

Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way in America. Why am I obligated to become a temporary Muslim for the ten minutes it takes to drive me home? The ideas of “minding ones own business” and “live and let live” have served our country well. The further we get away from these enduring principles, the more strife and discontent we will confront

Here’s the deal: if a cabbie doesn’t like booze, don’t drink. If a Christian fundamentalist doesn’t want to drive a bus with gay ads, quit and drive a church bus. If a pharmacist has a problem with dispensing contraception or Plan B, don’t use the products. If an Orthodox Jew doesn’t like bacon, instead of seeking to close down the deli, order lox. If you are against gay marriage, don’t have one.

If your beliefs are so austere and uncompromising that normal interaction with the public is considered a contaminant, then get a job with a religious institution. There are plenty of churches or mosques that need health providers or bus drivers. But don’t expect the public to do flash conversions each time they need your services. 

The long-term key to societal harmony is embracing the concept of “private faith,” which allows an individual to pursue personal virtue, without forcing compulsory beliefs on others. Many of the world’s most intractable problems stem directly from “communal faith,” in which individual liberty is trampled in the name of cultural values that can only exist if propped up by a fist. This version of faith is coercive as it is corrosive, wickedly dangerous and always volatile to a nation’s stability.

Communal faith breaks the social contract that binds us together and pits one group against another. It is anti-American and should not be confused with legitimate claims of religious liberty. If a person can pray where he wants and to whom he wants, than such theological freedom has been achieved. To move beyond this basic definition invites friction and even the calamitous wars that infect other parts of the world.

While those who subscribe to communal religion fancy themselves pious, they often strike me as having the least faith among us. Their belief systems appear so fragile that unless they create a monolithic universe of like-minded clones, their ideas crumble.

Common courtesy and respect for the beliefs of others does not require disrespecting our own beliefs and principles to make fanatics comfortable. If we shrink from our duty as Americans and appease zealots in busses and cabs, they may take us to our destination, but it will, in the end, put this nation way off course.