Free at Last From Criminals Hiding Behind Religion

Mark Vincent Serrano, with Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, is interviewed in Dallas on June 13, 2002, as he holds a photograph of himself at the age of 12, when he was abused. Marcia Hamilton writes that religious leaders are now rejecting bad acts by Catholic bishops, criticizing believers for their homophobia and condemning extremist Islamic jihadists. Amy E. Conn/reuters

This article first appeared on the Justice site.

It is just part of human nature that we make mistakes and overreach. And religious leaders are, after all, human.

There have been some doozies by religious leaders in the last 20 years, but I am happy to report that many religious leaders' consciences have now been pricked by current events to the point they are now becoming the constructive leaders for human rights we need them to be.

The United States is slowly recovering from an era in which religious lobbyists and organizations persuaded members of Congress and some states to grant them extreme rights to religious liberty on the implicit argument that religious conduct is always good for someone.

They sold their "Religious Freedom Restoration Acts" (RFRAs) in part by suppressing the reality of violent religious conduct, by excluding from their "coalition for the free exercise of religion" the most troubling religious groups and by agreeing not to discuss publicly their actual agenda items.

There was even an unholy, though deeply political, deal among the coalition members to insist in Congress and the states that an "RFRA" must have no exceptions. That means they never had to discuss the actual agendas underlying the decades-long push for extreme rights.

Thus, the coalition dressed up religious actors in angelic costumes and dared anyone, including elected representatives, to challenge that characterization. Far too many representatives, supposedly obligated to serve the public good and not factions, caved to their pressure.

Here's the reality: Some religious actors truly are heroic and angelic—but some are evil. And we suffer when we pretend the latter aren't religious in order to paint religion as always good for you.

In other words, the mass hypnosis and taboo that required everyone to defer to religious leaders simply because they were religious was a form of tyranny. So was the decision of religious leaders to hold their criticisms of others simply because they were religious.

History has a way of trampling over such mistakes. From the void, we are now hearing a chorus of religious leaders rejecting the bad acts of the Catholic bishops in lobbying against sex-abuse victims, criticizing believers for their ugly attitudes toward the LGBT community and condemning extremist Islamic jihadists for what they are.

We desperately need these religious voices for good, especially because they are finally leading the way by criticizing other religious actors.

For years, the Catholic bishops have been sinking millions into lobbying against child sex abuse victims in the states attempting to obtain some opening for justice. The campaign against the victims they created and every other victim has been relentless, ugly and cold-hearted.

Anyone who criticized (or criticizes) them is lambasted as "anti-Catholic" and the bishops roll on as though they were the high and mighty. The silent religious leaders who take no stand feed into their delusions of grandeur and goodness.

It took over a decade, but finally in 2016 major religious leaders got off of their hands and took the side of the victims—and called for justice for all sex abuse victims.

First, there were the Jewish leaders in New York, as I describe here. Then Pennsylvania Christian leaders banded together to declare their support for victims and SOL Reform and against the tactics of the Catholic bishops.

Then rank-and-file Pennsylvania Catholics spoke up in a petition, expressing their frustration with Pennsylvania elected leadership for taking the side of the bishops against the victims. Read just a few of the over 3,200 comments, and you get a sense of this fresh new reality: It is OK to criticize religious actors doing bad things! Not only OK, but downright righteous.

At the same time, the media fundamentally called out Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput's dirty tactics against the victims again and again.

These believers have crossed the Rubicon of taboo and cut a fresh, revolutionary path where they stand with the vulnerable and against those who harm them, regardless of their religious identity. That is a pathway to goodness, peace and true liberty. This gives me hope.

Here we sit in the midst of World War III, and lo and behold, who is our enemy? Fanatical, deeply religious extremist Muslims who are intent on destroying us for having the wrong (or no) religion.

For far too long, the Obama administration and Democrats pussyfooted around, trying not to link the terrorists with their religious reality. There was the era when the terrorists weren't "true" Muslims, as though they fell into a secular category, and then there was the call-them-anything-but-Muslim era. This is nothing other than magical thinking.

What does the United States get for pretending this global movement to impose fundamentalist Islam on the world is a rogue group of just plain old "terrorists"? Forty-nine dead Americans in an Orlando gay night club, because they were LGBTQ and allies, because it was Ramadan and because an ISIS-fueled religious fanatic saw a pathway to his heaven by killing these innocent human beings.

At the same time, the Republicans and their titular leader right now, Donald Trump, have chosen to demonize the entire religion of Islam. This revolting use of "Muslim" as a one-size-fits-all label is just as myopic and misleading.

The political play is obvious as Republicans attempt to paint all Muslims as the "enemy" with the implicit high five to conservative Christians that they are true believers. It's not helpful, though, and shields the bad actors in the Christian community, more about which below.

Whether you take the Democrat or Republican route to misnaming the extremist Islamic jihadists, you endanger Americans. So looking to the parties to find our way out has not helped. The good news is religious leaders are coming out of the shadows to stand for goodness again, and no longer letting other religious leaders with agendas different from their own operate with impunity.

Let me explain something very basic here: you can't defeat evil if you willingly squint at all religious actors to give them latitude to kill, abuse and neglect. The extremist Islamic movement has managed to cover all three categories.

So let's call these people who are killing our innocents here and abroad what they are: members of a fanatical religious cult. That opens pathways of inquiry and solution.

There is an outstanding organization of professionals who study and write about cults, the International Cultic Studies Association. I was honored to address their annual meeting several years ago and was impressed with their extraordinary intelligence and thoughtfulness.

I urge the president now and leaders from both parties to consult with the experts in the United States on cults, per se, to fight this religious enemy.

Just as important as the experts, though, are the religious leaders and believers from the larger faith tradition who must themselves loudly denounce these crimes against humanity.

The words shortly after the Orlando killings from leading national Muslim leaders and on the Internet from mainstream Muslims were inspiring and promising. They mobilized almost immediately to decry the actions taken by extremists from their larger faith and sent a loud message of unity with all law-abiding Americans. They have been criticized previously for silence, and an Obama-like timidity in naming the evil what it is, but they have found a voice of reason and goodness. Thank you.

One would have to engage in intricate charades not to conclude that the hatred and cruelty toward the LGBTQ community has had its source in religious communities.

The Mormons financed Prop 8 in California; Mississippi has gone out of its way to marginalize and stigmatize gays with one small-minded law after another; then there were the Catholics who beat up two gay men in Philadelphia, for being gay; and the infamous Manhattan Declaration where Catholic and evangelical leaders joined forces to publicly fight LGBTQ rights and marriage. Not to mention the Republican politicians pandering endlessly to those who want to live in a world without the LGBTQ individuals at all.

There were some religious communities who did speak up on the side of the LGBTQ community, including many Jews, the Universalist Unitarian Church and eventually the Presbyterians (USA) and some Episcopalians. But the loudest voices and the deepest pockets have been those against.

The Orlando killings then created an opportunity for religious leaders. The conservative Christian community wavered between support, prayer and judgment. But the conflicting messages themselves were rather refreshing after such a long cold period when their most frequent message about the gay community was relentlessly negative.

For others, it opened a pathway for some clergy and believers to speak up for basic human principles, regardless of their personal beliefs. There was the Orthodox rabbi who led fellow believers to a gay bar to honor the dead. And Catholics worldwide decried the bishops' response to Orlando as well as the religious roots of homophobia in the church.

The blinders are finally off and we are no longer controlled by the perverse reasoning that all religiously motivated conduct is worthy of high protection simply because it is religious. There is some conduct that is just wrong, and it turns out that Americans can unite across faiths to fight evil. Hooray!

Marci A. Hamilton is the Fox Family Pavilion Distinguished Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts,, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, She blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights.