In the United States, critics of such religious authorities as Catholic leaders often accuse religious authorities of “forcing” their followers to obey religious rules. For instance, the New York Times editorial board recently claimed that, by opposing the Obama administration’s contraception/abortifacient/sterilization mandate, Catholic leaders are forcing Catholic rules on “most American Catholic women.” Religious critics also accuse religious authorities of “forcing” their rules on citizens at-large through political means. For example, the same New York Times editorial further claimed that Catholic leaders’ opposition to the contraception/abortifacient/sterilization mandate is imposition of “[Catholic] doctrine on everyone.”
However, in modern America the claims that religious authorities often force rules on followers and citizens at-large are false. In this article’s context, “force” occurs when an external power coerces an individual to do some action. Regarding the claim that religious authorities force religious rules on their followers, religious authorities can legally (e.g., through fines or imprisonment) or otherwise force no follower to obey religious rules.
Such churches as Church of Scientology have legal, voluntary contracts with their followers to help maintain followers’ religious beliefs and practices once followers join the churches. For instance, Church of Scientology’s contracts with followers read, in part, as follows: “This Contract memorializes my [follower’s] freely given consent to be bound exclusively by the discipline, faith…and ecclesiastical rule…of the Scientology religion in all matters relating to Scientology Religious Services…” However, aside from some churches’ legal, voluntary contracts with their followers, religious authorities’ only real pressures on followers to obey religious rules are the threats of social stigma of leaving a particular church and, for certain “bad” behaviors, such punishment in the afterlife as Hell.
Such religious freedom surely didn’t exist in America several centuries ago, when religious and government authorities were more unified. For instance, in the 1600s Puritans who founded the Massachusetts colony horsewhipped, banished, or jailed dissenters to Puritan beliefs. In the 1700s in the Virginia colony, Puritan officials banned preaching by Presbyterians and horsewhipped Baptist preachers.1
As for the claim that religious authorities force religious rules on citizens at-large, this claim is false because religious authorities have no constitutional or other legal authority to force religious rules on citizens at-large. Nevertheless, religious authorities can and do lobby government officials to pass laws with religious goals. For example, in 2007 Cardinal Justin Rigali, then-Archbishop of Philadelphia, lobbied Congress to continue funding “[sexual] abstinence-until-marriage programs” in communities. Also, in 2005 Cardinal William Keeler, then-Archbishop of Baltimore, urged the Senate to continue banning assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Religious critics such as those on the New York Times’ editorial board who claim that religious authorities “force” their followers or even citizens at-large to obey religious rules are clearly mistaken. Perhaps these critics could instead complain that governments force their citizens, through threats of fines, imprisonment, and other earthly punishments, to obey such government rules as the Obama administration’s rule that religious institutions, businesses, and individuals must fund others’ contraception, abortifacients, and sterilizations. At the very least, hopefully these religious critics would oppose the horsewhipping of citizens who disobey government rules.