Religious freedom was meant to protect not bludgeon. What happened?

What was once a fight for presence has now become a fight for absence.

Poster for Disney's

(RNS) — Yes, Florida fifth grade teacher Jenna Barbee is under a state investigation for showing her class a Disney movie, because the film features a gay character, and watching that in the classroom currently violates state law.

Rather ironically, the movie is called “Strange World,” which is pretty much how most people feel about what is happening, regardless of where they stand on the issue. 

The world feels increasingly strange — even dangerously so — both to those who are concerned that screening a Disney movie with a gay character can land a teacher in hot water and to those who experience the world as increasingly strange — even dangerously so — to those who hate that she pressed play on the film.

While I do not see the two sides as equally valid, nothing written here, beyond appealing to each side to more fully appreciate that shared feeling of dangerous strangeness, will bring greater sanity to the conversation. I am writing here, instead, about God, public leadership and the current state of the fight for the free exercise of religion in our nation.

The parent who lodged the complaint that launched the investigation against Barbee is Shannon Rodriguez, who also happens to be an elected member of the Hernando County School District Board. She justified her inquiry by asserting that “God did put me here.”

That is where things get truly problematic, regardless of one’s view on the specific issue. With those five words, that is where Rodriguez failed as a public official. In the United States of America, we are not led by prophets, but by elected officials whose job is to follow, make and adjudicate the law of the land, not the laws of Scripture or the word of God.

Don’t get me wrong; I think the overly narrow and all-too-common liberal conflation of the free expression of religion with the freedom to pray as one might want to in their chosen house of worship is fundamentally wrong and a misreading of the Constitution. I even appreciate Rodriguez’s belief in Divine Providence and that God’s plan for her life includes her being elected to the local school board. I, too, believe in the notion that God plays a role in the unfolding of our personal lives.

I can also empathize with many conservative Christians in their feeling that pop culture disregards their views. As an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, I would be considered a “knuckle-dragging gorilla” in many rooms, both culturally and theologically. I appreciate the hurt and fear that many cultural and theological conservatives experience, even as I disagree with them on many issues. I even appreciate some of the underlying concerns of the laws that are the basis of the investigation against Barbee, even though I oppose those laws.

But that should all be beside the point, as laws come and go, and politics is about getting in the fray and trying to make things better, in the many differing ways we understand that. There is a world of difference between what one believes, on the one hand, and using that belief as a prophetic calling to mess with other people’s lives.

As a parent, Rodriguez is free to complain about her kid’s teacher. As a school board member, she is free, and perhaps even obligated, to jump into the issue, no matter how much some of us disagree with the side onto which she has jumped. As an elected official however, she is also obligated to stay clear of acting as prophet, declaring with certainty God’s plan for her or for anyone else. Full stop. 

Not to mention that in failing to make that distinction, Rodriguez also planted the seeds of undermining her own religious freedom. Once we govern by prophecy, what is to stop another official — one with an opposing view — who is equally as certain of God’s will as she is, from invoking a new prophecy that declares Rodriguez to be an enemy of God’s will? The answer is obvious. Nothing. As much as I disagree with Ms. Rodriguez, I know we are all better off if her right to be wrong (in my view) is protected.

Therein lies the other piece of this story — the evolution, over the past 35 years in this country, of what it means to fight for freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion, going back to Thomas Jefferson’s defense of Baptist faith and practice, with which he clearly disagreed on many fronts, and moving on in U.S. history to the fight for the religious freedom of Mormons, Catholics and Jews, and the more recent struggles faced by Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, has been a fight for religious minorities’ right to be present — to practice their respective faith fully and freely.

The Florida case is the latest example in how that has changed.

What was once a fight for presence has now become a fight for absence. Religious freedom, and faith-based politics as practiced by Rodriguez and those who support her based on Divine Providence, has shifted to a fight, not to secure their own free expression, but to secure the absences of those with whom they disagree. 

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. Courtesy photo

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. Courtesy photo

We must keep prophecy and public leadership as far away from one another as possible and always distinguish between the fight for greater presence, which is sacred, and the fight to make others absent, which is almost always the opposite.

(Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily, where this post first appeared. He is also president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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