As the World Turns

No flat earth imagery for this editorial! I want to keep it real. And is there anything more “real” than a soap opera? Ergo my title, which was the title of the second-longest-running soap opera of all time, which ran for 54 years! That covers nearly my whole lifetime, and provides an appropriate lead-in for an analogy to religious liberty over that period.

Maybe I’d better backtrack a little by way of full disclosure: I am not a fan of soap operas. In channel surfing mode I often caught the wave foam of World plots, but seldom paused to try to figure out the convoluted relationships. Once when my Hispanic wife and I were living back in Australia we had a several-month flirtation with an Argentine soap entitled Rosa de Lehos or Rosa From Far Away. My wife, Rosadelia, loved it for obvious reasons. But overall I have a fair respect for the drama, the intricate detail of the soap as it attempts to take real life and turn it into Ibsen. Unfortunately the end result is to real life what pro wrestling is to The Hunger Games!

Not good analogies! Let’s try on the religious freedom one and fit it to soap opera. Lately it has hit me that much in the religious liberty world plays to the soap imagery.

It came as a flash of enlightenment during my news bingeing recently. I had barely digested the latest presidential executive order on religious liberty—an expected rollback of the Johnson Amendment, but not quite that risqué, it turned out—when I was treated to live video of the president doing the sword dance shuffle in Saudi Arabia. The surreality of it all has to be compared to soap opera. And far be it to criticize the presidential role—I’m sure the latest trip will only help the poll numbers. But on the level of soap opera the president is a player among many others, and the whole tale blurs romance and paternity so thoroughly it might take 54 years to untangle.

But think for a moment what these two cameo moments say.

An executive order on religious freedom might not really be necessary if we had a Constitution. Sorry, we do—so why the order? The U.S. Constitution nod to religious freedom is short and absolute: no establishment of religion and no restriction on religious faith, and no religious test for public office. Not complicated unless you like soap opera and subplots. In reality many of the powers that be—let’s call them actors—are not too keen on generalized religious freedom. What they want is freedom to do as their faith requires and money or laws to facilitate that view. And the brass ring seems to be political power. But one has to ask what political power allied to a religious viewpoint will accomplish!

Well, how about taking a visit to Saudi Arabia. Go via a stream of information and videos on the Internet rather that with any official party, and you get a taste of how politically empowered religion feels like. For the honored guest it’s the sword dance (I still remember our family laughing at pictures of my father enthusiastically sword dancing on an official trip there years ago), but for religious dissidents and criminals the edge of the sword is more cutting. Sometimes the experience involves dead bodies hung like grapes on a crane for public viewing. Political power for religious sentiment is de rigeur in Saudi Arabia and beyond into political Islam. In Aceh, Indonesia, for example, it translated into 83 swipes of the cane for gay behavior. A little like the spate of death penalty legislation for gays in several African countries that allowed politically ambitious fundamentalists from the United States to advise them. It’s probably on their agenda for the West, too. Of course, some of the more extreme, like Christian Reconstructionists, would like the death penalty for Sabbathbreaking and adultery, too. Sorry, Saudi Arabia, for the criticism; maybe you are just a plot twist or two ahead of us.

Of course, the United States needs to cultivate friendships with as many other nations as it can, and there is no logic to shunning them politically. But surely a little realism wouldn’t go awry. But soap opera is never quite about realism, is it?

Realism would mean confronting some realities that have been more than 54 years in the making or unmaking. Disdain for the separation of church and state, no matter how grammatical the argument, is not going to make for religious harmony and avoid religious compulsion. Hatred for the so-called workers’ paradise of Communism helped lead to a capitalism on steroids that acts as if it has a free market right to disallow religious accommodation in the workplace (hint: it’s time to enact the Workplace Religious Freedom Act so long held at bay by employers and others). It’s time to realize that the war on terror, apart from being a misapplied term in dealing with religiously inspired political violence, has stolen a whole bevy of civil rights. And the rights family don’t do well when mistreated: sooner or later the lovely daughter religious rights suffers indignities. Soap opera thinking rules the day.

A little realism would make us more sensitive to the rapid decline of religious liberty and civil rights around the world. The greatest tragedy of North Korea is the soul-destroying uniformity imposed on its citizenry and the hatred for religious expression beyond worship of the state. A little realism would see the religious aggression of Islam to Christianity as part of a bigger problem that includes violence within Islam and its resentments of past mistreatment at the hands of other faiths. The burden of history is very much with us today, and religion is as heavy as any influence.

A little realism would have us see that the security state is ultimately antithetical to religious freedom. A little realism would have us see that politically favoring one religious group leads to establishment and rivalry. A little realism would have us see that political professions of faith have about as much chance of being effective in guaranteeing religious freedom as the rich Pharisee’s prayer was of being heard by the Divine.

In the Good Book there is a moment when the prophet Hosea laments for God that “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Imagine trying to pick up the plot for As the World Turns. Watching one or two episodes might just confuse a casual viewer. Taking the ridiculous to a sublime analogy, it’s certain that if we are uninformed about the real nature of religious liberty we will likely lose it. Or even worse, is the prospect we could lose it and not know we had lost it, because it was not familiar to us. (Known unknowns!) We must be informed about our laws that support religious freedom. We owe it to ourselves to know a little of its history—about how it was gained civilly. And in my view, it can hardly even qualify as religious freedom if we are not religious enough to care. Without these considerations, even religious freedom becomes, in the words of Shakespeare (from Macbeth, Act V), “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."