"Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn't Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do by Robert Boston, Prometheus Books, 2014
What inspired you to write Taking Liberties? What sparked your interest?
Two stories that have been in the news lately inspired me to write this book. One is the ongoing fight in the courts over the “contraceptive mandate” of the Affordable Care Act. The owners of secular companies—firms that have nothing to do with religion—are making the argument, often successfully in court, that their personal religious objection to birth control means they can deny the people who work for them access to it through health-care plans.
This struck me as bizarre. How does one person’s decision to use birth control possibly affect someone else’s religious liberty? When did religious freedom, something that is usually thought of as an individual right, suddenly become a collective freedom to be enjoyed by for-profit corporations? And since when do our private decisions about medical care become subject to someone else’s religious veto?
The second incident was the spread of same-sex marriage in the states. I heard all manner of strange claims being made—for example, that gay couples would somehow win the power to force churches to perform their wedding ceremonies. At the same time, owners of bed and breakfasts, bakeries and photography studios were insisting that “religious freedom” gives them the right to refuse service to entire classes of people. This sounds like the new segregation to me. I thought the time was right to remind people what religious freedom really is so they don’t accept this weird substitute being passed off by the far right.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
That religious freedom is a precious and noble concept—but it does not give you the right to control others or make moral decisions for them. Under religious freedom, you can worship (or refrain from worshipping) as you see fit. But you and your co-religionists are responsible for that. If what you are doing requires government “help” to promote, pay for or enforce your doctrines, chances are it’s not religious freedom.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
My background is in journalism; I’m not a lawyer. Inevitably, a book like this has some discussion of the law in it, but I didn’t want this book to read like an extended legal treatise. I have avoided lengthy discussions of church-state law. There are plenty of books like that for readers who want it.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Some people—mainly those affiliated with the Religious Right—seem to believe that their religious freedom is being violated if the government is not backing them up at every turn. Thus, if they can’t force other students to take part in (or at least listen to) a prayer in a public school, their religious freedom is violated. If the local courthouse refuses to display the Ten Commandments, that becomes a violation of religious freedom. A town council’s refusal to open its deliberations with Christian prayers is a violation of religious freedom. None of these things are real violations of religious freedom. Religious liberty is for people, not governments.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
My book is for anyone who is interested in these issues. I take no stand on theology and hope that religious people as well as non-believers will find things of value in the book. In the book I point out that I have no theological axe to grind. The whole point of religious freedom is that we get to make our own decisions about these things, but that no group has the right to co-opt the machinery of the government and use it as an enforcer of its dogma.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
All three, I hope. I want readers to learn things from this book, but I also hope they will enjoy reading it. I strived for a tone that is engaging and conversational, and I’ve included some personal anecdotes to move things along. And, yes, I do want to motivate people to action. There are forces in this country that are laboring to redefine religious freedom in such a way as to give them the power to make decisions for others. I want people to resist this.
What alternative title would you give the book?
My original title for the book was You’re Not the Boss of Me. The publisher thought this sounded too much like a parenting manual and suggested Taking Liberties for the main title. Although I understand the publisher’s point of view, I retain some affection for the original title, so it would be my first choice for an alternative.
How do you feel about the cover?
Grace Conti-Zilsberger designed the cover. It’s type only, and I have to say I’m pleased with what she did. It conveys a certain sense of energy. Of course, the book will be available as an e-book as well, so some readers will probably never see the cover.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
I love reading history. There are so many great titles in that genre that I’ve enjoyed over the years that it would be impossible to list them all. One that stands out is James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Every now and then you come across a book that really makes you think differently about an entire discipline or field of study. Loewen’s book did that for me. And it’s not only an impressive work of scholarship, it’s eminently readable. As a writer, I can’t help but admire that.
What’s your next book?
I’m not sure. To be honest, I never thought I would write this book. Taking Liberties is my first book of new material since 2000. My first book, Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church & State, was first published in 1993 and updated 10 years later. It’s probably time for another update. That might be my next project."
by Robert Boston
Prometheus Books , 2014