Feeding the Hungry vs. Antigay Activism: A Double Standard for Religious Freedom?

If you’ve watched the news or been on social media at all this past week, you’ve by now probably heard that, along with two other ministers, 90-year-old WWII veteran Arnold Abbot, was arrested last week in Fort Lauderdale, FL for feeding the homeless, which he has done for over 20 years through his organization Love Thy Neighbor.

Created in 1991 as a tribute to his wife, LTN provides, among other things food, shelter, and counseling to Broward County’s substantial homeless population. The non-profit, interfaith organization cites as its motivation “two very simple concepts. We believe that ‘We are out brothers keeper’ and we should ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’”  Under the new ordinance, Abbot and his co-conspirators face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Although the city has received much deserved criticism we also wonder why the ordinance, and Abbot’s arrest for allegedly violating it, haven’t been portrayed in terms of religious freedom. The whole situation has been labeled as silly at best and coldhearted at worst. Nicki Grossman, who runs the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, told the Sun Sentinel that she has received emails telling her that the city “has no heart.” But, at least as far as we can tell, it seems that virtually no one has pulled out the First Amendment in defense of Arnold Abbot.

We draw attention to this because, as RD has frequently noted, appeals to “religious freedom” have become commonplace in the face of perceived government overreach. Indeed, the weekend before last, thousands gathered at Grace Community Church in Houston for I Stand Sunday to draw attention to religious freedom in the face of perceived political intimidation. The immediate cause of the rally was the Houston mayor’s office’s recent subpoenaing of the sermons of five area pastors who supported a petition on a ballot measure to repeal an equal rights ordinance. The speakers at the rally widely interpreted that action—which, it is important to note, has since been limited—as a direct assault on their religious beliefs and violation of their freedom to practice them. Tony Perkins, president of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council, said that the mayor’s office was “trying to silence the voices of the churches and the pastors.”

Although we agree that the mayor’s office overreached, no one in Houston was or has been arrested, or even silenced. A rally is, by definition, a pretty loud, visible event, and if anything it draws attention to the fact that the freedom to gather and worship as one pleases is rather healthy in this country. And yet, when Arnold Abbot actually gets arrested for doing what he thinks his religion requires him to do, it’s unfortunate but not, for these same activists, a matter of religious freedom, despite the fact that Abbot seems to think it is. Commenting on the affair, Abbot has said, “It’s our right to feed people, it’s our First Amendment right and I believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and we should be allowed to feed our fellow man.” It’s hard to find a stronger—and more convincing—appeal to religious freedom and duty.

That there’s been no significant attempt to paint Abbot’s arrest as a First Amendment issue draws attention to the selective nature of appeals to religious freedom, whatever the various legal merits of such claims. Unfortunately, it seems that for many, opposition to equal rights falls under the category of “religious freedom,” while being arrested for caring for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:45) does not. All of which goes to show, it seems, that many of the contemporary appeals to religious freedom have more to do with politics than faithfulness.

9 Comments

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Feeding people and speaking out against damaging sinful behavior are both Christian.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Are you like a single 53 year-old Catholic or something, Frank?

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Double-standard, yes.

  • Lilmo2nd@aol.com' NavyBlues05 says:

    ” All of which goes to show, it seems, that many of the contemporary appeals to religious freedom have more to do with politics than faithfulness.”

  • jmmartin@grandecom.net' JamesMMartin says:

    Being your bother’s keeper sometimes lures one into what some Buddhists call “false compassion.” As laws, such concepts fail, for vagueness if nothing else. They’re still an invasion of religion into the political sphere. “Brother’s keeper” is directly from the Bible and is therefore dogma from the Judeo-Christian faiths. We have to get beyond religion and to recognize that there may be no point in our being here, but that doesn’t mean we live meaningless lives: helping others gives our lives meaning. Good without God.

  • The author is so right when she points out that these lawsuits and new laws we see about religious freedom are more about political advantage than faith. In the early 1970s I left organized religions because I was tired of politics in the pulpit instead of God. I find the churches today who are so dead-set against the rights of people to practice their religion or their lifestyles as they see fit because of supposed religious freedom to be just another way of promoting bigotry, hate, and ultimately violence from the pulpit.

    I am trying to start a new church in my town, it is open to anyone who wishes to attend, but the flyers announcing its first service have been taken down more than once all over town, and all I can hope for now is that word of mouth will bring people in.

    The problem: I am exercising my religious freedom to worship as I see fit and inviting others to join me, but two so-called Christian churches in town do not want anyone challenging their control of this community which they think should be white, male, heterosexual, gun-toting, Tea Party GOP, and Christian under their standards of Christianity. I am considered wrong for wanting to worship as I see fit under God’s commands, am a woman with a liberal political voice, and I won’t close my church doors to anyone unless they show up armed, at which point I will ask them to leave the gun in the car and then come on in. I tell people that we should help our neighbors regardless of who or how they worship, the color of their skin, their lifestyle, their gender or age. God made us all, so why should be decide who is welcome in His church and who is not.

    I guess that is unacceptable to many Christians today. It certainly seems to be in places like Houston, Ft. Lauderdale, and Christmas Valley, OR. They choose to exercise “religious liberty/freedom” as justification for stopping anyone else from practicing their beliefs as their religious freedom allows them to do under our Constitution. I guess when you are so stupid as to not see the hypocrisy of what you are actually doing, it is to be expected, but that does not make it Christian or Constitutional.

    Rev. Devon J. Noll
    New Word Universal Fellowship Church
    Christmas Valley, OR
    http://www.newworduniversalfellowship.org

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    Wow: Great take on what happened in Houston. Some people just don’t want to be bothered by real life and those living as outcasts. Take that to the worst possible degree and we have alienation from humanity and history repeating itself again, i.e. “I didn’t see or know about the concentration camps”. And its not just about Germany 1933-1945.

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    In general, the conservative Christian broadcasting universe is a dismal failure when it comes to encouraging people to give directly to the poor and encouraging people to think about the needs of the local poor (as opposed to financing free Bibles for poor people overseas). There is great emphasis on the apocalyptic threat of gay marriage, and on sending money to the preachers producing the radio and TV shows.

  • imjessietr@yahoo.com' Kelly says:

    Jesus told us to judge the tree by its fruit. Feeding people helps. Bitching about things that don’t involve you doesn’t.

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