Speakers say religion has potential to create safe communities for marginalized groups

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One third of Americans report being chronically lonely and half of Americans express that no one truly knows them. National suicide rates have risen, while religious participation has declined, according to social scientist David Brooks.

The marketization of everything from personal recreation to dating creates the “illusion of infinite choice.” This surplus of perceived options can overwhelm and isolate, said Shadi Hamid, who was a panelist at the Religious Freedom Annual Review on June 20.

A stable community can counteract the harmful effects of mass marketization, added fellow panelist R. R. Reno. Communities provide norms and value sets that assist in decision-making, Reno said.

Though religion fulfills this community function for many, it can remain isolating for certain marginalized groups. Other panels at the Review discussed ways in which religion can still function as a safe, stabilizing community for these groups — if those belonging to religious communities choose to foster inclusion and understanding.

Women

A panel of women representing various religions agreed that the infantilization of religious women is harmful to the conversations surrounding women’s rights and religious freedom.

“There is a notion out there that religion itself — organized religion in its various forms — is anti-woman,” said panelist Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the Catholic Association. “I think that this sets back the cause of religious liberty, and I think it undermines religious women.”

McGuire further explained religious women often say their passion for their beliefs motivates them to lead the fight for religious liberty.

Panelist Sahar Aziz agreed, citing misconceptions around the hijab and religiously-motivated violence as examples of this harmful notion. She said the vast majority of Muslim women choose to wear the hijab as a demonstration of their devotion to God, and much of the violence western news outlets cover are extreme cases, not the norm.

Aziz said American Muslim women are more concerned about violence from white supremacist groups than from men of their own faith.

An increase in religious freedom education will do more to protect women of faith than a misdirected campaign to free women from organized religion altogether, said panelist Tina Ramirez.

Ramirez said she participated in a study in which students who showed a willingness to discriminate against women receiving education were taught about religious freedom. After a few lessons, Ramirez said those same students changed their opinions entirely and respected women’s right to education.

LGBT

For the LGBT community, the language of religious freedom often “is used as a vehicle to obscure discrimination,” said panelist Sarah Langford.

Other panelists affirmed that phrases such as “hate the sin, love the sinner” are damaging. Panelist Ben Schilaty, an openly gay Latter-day Saint recalled how painful it was to read fellow Latter-day Saints’ hurtful comments posted online following the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage.

Panelist Billy Kluttz added saying “LGBT issues” is also offensive. “We’re not issues,” he said. “We’re people.”

Kluttz, a gay, Presbyterian pastor, said the experiences resulting from this kind of language are awkward and dehumanizing.

Other panelists agreed saying these experiences create difficulties when trying to identify safe spaces, especially among their religious communities.

“It’s very interesting to constantly be in a space where you have to understand how to filter or reframe what parts of your life you’re going to share with someone,” Langford said.

Schilaty said he had to justify his LGBT identity to his religious community and justify his religious beliefs to his LGBT community, especially since he chooses to abstain from homosexual relationships as part of his religious practice.

“How much of myself can I share, and how many qualifiers do I need to give so that people will still respect me?” Schilaty asked.

The panelists called upon straight allies within the religious community to create safe, loving spaces in their congregations.

The key, according to Schilaty, is listening and seeking to understand rather than to be understood. Every congregation has LGBT members with whom to interact and include, said Kluttz.

“If you think you don’t know and love someone in your life who is LGBTQ, then perhaps it’s time to do some honest self-evaluation about why you haven’t made yourself a safe space for them to volunteer that to you,” Langford said.

Panelist Benjamin Marcus expressed a desire to see greater institutional efforts to help LGBT people of faith.

“Churches have a responsibility to provide structural safety nets for those who are traumatized,” Marcus said, naming mental health services, healthcare services and provisions for homeless LGBT youth as just a few examples of what those safety nets might include.

Diverse Dialogue

Diversity and inclusion will inevitably invite an array of contrasting ideas. However, according to Hamid, diverse communities need not fear disagreement — in fact, bringing together disagreeing parties to engage in respectful dialogue can foster understanding and growth.

“You can’t exercise hospitality unless you have a home, and the home needs to be built,” Reno said.

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