Please Keep Your Religion Out Of My Mouth

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Rafael Elias/Getty

Imagine that you, a God-fearing Christian, are at a dentist appointment. As you settle into the chair, you and the tech engage in the usual pre-cleaning small-talk one would expect—the weather, how many kids you have, their ages, etc. Of course, talk slows down as you get further into the appointment because you, after all, are lying there with your mouth open, drool and fluoride pooling under your tongue, and metal tools and that little suction thingy they use taking turns invading your mouth.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the tech says, “Yeah, I practice atheism. I feel connected to the universe in a spiritual way, I guess, but the idea of a god having created everything and judging everyone—it just doesn’t make sense, you know?” You have thoughts on this, obviously, but you can’t really respond because the tech is digging a metal scraper thingy between two of your molars. She continues: “The way I look at it is, if you’re striving to be a good person, it should be intrinsically motivated—not just because you’re afraid of God’s wrath. Are you flossing daily?”

Would you find this appropriate?

This happened to me a few weeks ago, except I was the non-religious person in the scenario. I was also the one lying prone in a chair receiving a lecture about the importance of obeying God’s Word as various metal objects and tiny vacuums were inserted into my open mouth. I was the one in a vulnerable position, unable to respond. It brought new meaning to the phrase, “shoving your religion down my throat.”

To be clear: I am all for people having faith. I fully support you practicing whatever religion brings you joy and peace. But my support comes with a major caveat—it ends the moment your religion marginalizes, harms, or condemns any person or group of people based on their identity. The religion that this dental tech was describing to me as so important in her life was Jehovah’s Witness. Granted, she didn’t invite me to attend a service with her. And she wasn’t unkind. In fact, she was a perfectly lovely person.

During the pre-cleaning small talk, she had asked how to pronounce my last name, and where it came from. I explained it is from my ex-husband—I kept it because I wanted to have the same last name as my children. She said that made sense, but she also expressed her condolences about my divorce in a more emphatic way than what I am used to. She said it was “a shame.” I told her thank you, but that it “needed to happen.” I almost added that the reason we had divorced is because I came out as gay, but I didn’t. Where I live, I never know how I will be treated based on my queer identity. Passing as straight is weird: it protects you in some ways, but it also leaves you feeling unseen.

I’m not suggesting that this woman would have treated me badly if I’d told her I’m gay. But as I lay with my mouth open under her tools, listening to her proselytize about her faith, I was relieved I’d refrained from mentioning it before. Now, after the fact, I have mixed feelings. Should I have spoken up? Should I have walked out? Is it fair of me to make assumptions about a person’s entire belief system based on their religion alone? Many Christians are devoted, outspoken allies to the gay community, so maybe not all Jehovah’s Witnesses are homophobic. Maybe we shouldn’t decide who cleans our teeth based on religion, or whose teeth we clean based on sexual orientation.

What I know for sure though, is that I felt extremely uncomfortable in the dentist’s chair that day. I felt like I wanted to hide. Afterward, I researched. Jehovah’s Witnesses, statistically speaking, do not approve of homosexuality. According to Pew Research Center, 76% of the members of that faith believe homosexuality should be discouraged. If that is true, it is the most homophobic religion in the U.S.

While I don’t want to prematurely judge anyone based on a single piece of their identity (though, arguably religion is a huge piece), I also can’t deny what this particular religion as an institution says about me, about my partner, about the entire queer community. The official stance of Jehovah’s Witnesses is, “The Bible leaves no room for confusion.”

But even if this woman didn’t feel that strongly, and even if I weren’t gay, it was still inappropriate for her to bring up her religion while she was cleaning my teeth. It’s inappropriate to foist religion on anyone, anywhere. Not everyone wants to be religious. Not everyone wants to be the kind of religion you are. Or the kind of not-religious you are. It’s one thing to talk about religion (or lack thereof) in an open, consensual manner where everyone is in agreement that they want to have that conversation. But too often, that’s not what these conversations look like.

In a country that was supposedly founded on freedom of religion, religion has powerful influence in government, and in the GOP in particular. The GOP’s official position on gay marriage is that they intend to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision which ruled that the 14th Amendment guarantees same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry. The GOP’s position is based wholly and entirely on Christian Biblical teachings that homosexuality is a sin.

In schools, kids of all faiths are required to pledge their allegiance to a flag and end that pledge with “under God.” The context there is that the “God” in question is the Christian one. Parents who question this practice are accused of being anti-American. Anti-American, or anti-religion? I think, to some, those ideas are synonymous.

What this boils down to for me personally is that I’ve got half the country committed to a political party which explicitly states its intent to take away my right to marry. I can’t get my teeth cleaned without a very nice lady literally trying to shove her beliefs down my throat. This, in a country where religious freedom is a guaranteed right. Freedom of religion means that everyone has the right to practice whatever religion they want. But it also means the freedom to opt out of religion completely. And I really wish more people would start to acknowledge that.

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