Freedom of religion: It works both ways

While I’ve been very remiss in posting lately, many blog-worthy thoughts have been on my mind—from PantheaCon and Hittite, Hurrian, and Hellenistic tie-ins with the Dolichene religion, to of course syncretism and boundary-crossing and human-perceived limits on where deities belong and where they can go. Not to mention such perennial March themes as Mars, Juno, International Women’s Day, the Equinox, and so forth. More on such points in the future (hopefully!).

In the meantime, I wanted to thank Brennos for bringing up the question of separating religion and politics, as it seems to me this is an incredibly timely issue for a whole variety of reasons. First, I want to broaden the debate just slightly by reframing it in terms of not just separation, but freedom of religion. As Brennos points out, the foundation of the US notion of the ‘separation of Church and State’ is the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids Congress from making an “establishment of religion” (this is the famous Establishment clause). Before the Revolution, most of the colonies had established churches which represented the official religion in their jurisdiction. These churches (generally Puritan in New England and Anglican elsewhere) received public money for their operations, and non-believers could suffer political and financial sanction. Religious tests for office-holding were widespread; they were carefully phrased so as to exclude Jews, Unitarians and freethinkers from holding public office, and usually Catholics as well. Needless to say, they would also have excluded polytheists—and there were some of us around then, Thomas Taylor being a famous 18th-century example (albeit on the other side of the pond). Thomas Jefferson deserves more credit than anybody else for enshrining freedom of religion in the revolutionary period. He authored Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777 (which is well worth reading), and the Federal government would follow suit a decade or so later with the First Amendment.

Now, the First Amendment, as Brennos observes, prohibits Congress both from making establishment of religion, and from “prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; in the same breath, it safeguards freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of assembly, and the right to petition for a redress of grievances. Thus the sword of justice cuts against both public officials imposing their religious views on others, and against restrictions on private persons’ exercise of religion, speech and conscience. As a practical matter, this means that activists should not be prevented from acting on their religious and ethical principles, just as Brennos declares—even if that action is explicitly political. Anybody who argues that activists should perforce pretend to be irreligious even if they’re not, has simply not understood the First Amendment. In fact, without political action based on religious and moral principles, the US would never have had an abolitionist movement, a suffragist movement, or a civil rights movement. (Or, for that matter, a Prohibition or Sabbatarian movement—on which more below.) I really like Brennos’ observation that most people’s spirituality and politics are influenced by their morals and ethics, not the other way around. I hope this is true, though I rather fear that the various religious fundamentalisms in circulation are teaching people that, in effect, “it’s only moral if my holy book says it is”.

Yet the same Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion and political action simultaneously prohibits office-holders from imposing their own religion on others. Religiously motivated activists, having gained power, need to ensure that their actions do not infringe the religious liberties of others. US office-holders take an oath to uphold the Constitution—at which point they are answerable to the gods who punish violators of oaths if they seek in any way to subvert the First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution). Salmon P. Chase is a good example from US history of somebody who was deeply religious himself, who became a pillar of the abolitionist movement in accordance with his religious principles, and who then became, in turn, a Congressman, a Cabinet secretary, and a justice of the Supreme Court. In office and out, Chase lived his principles—he was, if anything, seen as being only too rigid—seeking to advance the cause of racial equality and civil rights. Yet he did not, as far as I know, exceed the limits of the Constitution; that is, he did not promote his own religion at others’ expense. Conversely, Prohibitionism and the Sunday-closing movement actually came out of precisely the same spiritual and social milieu as abolitionism and the early women’s suffrage movement; they fail this test, however, in that they deprive dissenters of practical freedoms they would otherwise enjoy were it not for the interposition of religiously motivated legal restrictions. For this very reason, Canada’s Sunday-closing laws were immediately invalidated upon the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, whose Section Two covers some of the same ground as the First Amendment in the US. For the same reason, laws and regulations aiming to restrict access to pork and alcohol—a new violation of Turks’ liberties that was gaining momentum while I was living in Turkey—are equally obnoxious and should be opposed.

As polytheists, we shouldn’t be shy about defending freedom of religion. It is the bedrock on which the legal exercise of our own religions rests. Moreover, the threats against freedom of religion are real, and they are growing. In the US, religious sentiment has waxed and waned since 1789—in fact, it has probably waxed more than it has waned—and without the Constitutional safeguard, there would be no check on recurring State and local initiatives to establish religion in such forms as “the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” (the phrase in Tennessee’s 1925 Butler Act) or the “Judeo-Christian values” constantly touted in cases involving the Ten Commandments, school prayer, abortion rights, and using public money for religious private schools.

Outside the US, the trend is not good. Just in the last few weeks, an atheist blogger in Bangladesh, Avjit Roy, was hacked to death by Muslim vigilantes. Raif Badawi, a liberal secular blogger in Saudi Arabia, was sentenced to receive 50 lashes a week for twenty weeks. The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which has an anti-clerical streak a mile wide, was attacked along with a Jewish supermarket in Paris and police targets, resulting in 17 deaths (not counting the assassins) and 22 wounded. In Iraq and Syria, Yezidis and other religious minorities have been subjected en masse to enslavement, sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, and forced conversions. Beheadings, enslavement, and the destruction of cultural treasures, from Mali to the Philippines, and beyond, are now carried out openly in the name of religion. These are not remote concerns. In our increasingly globalized world, millions in the West are directly affected by such human rights violations, whether as refugees or as family members or friends of the communities in question. Conversely, far too many of the perpetrators of these outrages are themselves Westerners. Most of the victims of Islamic terrorism, I must point out, are Muslims, and most Muslims want nothing to do with such barbarism. And I’d be remiss not to point out the violent attacks by Buddhist fundamentalists against Rohingya Muslims in Burma, by Hindu fundamentalists against Muslims and Christians in India, and by the Sri Lankan military against the island’s Tamil and Muslim communities, all of which should also be seen in the context of repression by agents of a hegemonic religious élite—as should anti-gay legislation in both Russia and Uganda, as well as legal repression of dissidents like Pussy Riot and Femen. Obviously, the circumstances of all these assaults are different: the targets differ, and the perpetrators are sometimes state actors, sometimes rogue attackers. But all are violations of freedom of religion and conscience—and they are therefore attacks on us.

Brennos writes that:

Spirituality and politics should never be top down institutions, they should be guided and led by the people in a continual process of refinement and education, striving for better understanding and a more equable and just society.

I wholeheartedly agree with this aspiration. The reality, unfortunately, is that the trend is against us. East and West, too many politicians—and religious leaders—are precisely imposing a top-down vision of both morality and political obedience. If Islamic State is an obvious example of this, so is Putin’s Russia. As members of a religious minority, we need to be forthright in denouncing the growing trend of illiberal religious policies—and that may well mean defending others’ right to offend us, as problematic and painful as that can sometimes be. The best way to combat the trend of religious repression is by building and maintaining a society in which freedom of religion thrives. That includes space for religiously motivated political activism as well as Jefferson’s “wall of separation between the church and the state”.

It’s therefore worth reflecting on what we can do to not be part of the problem. The First Amendment framework says what Congress should not do; other instruments, like Section Two of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are more avowedly universal in form, declaring that “everyone” is entitled to “freedom of conscience and religion”. In either case, we’re invited to imagine how such freedoms might be infringed. Obviously laws can impede the exercise of religious freedom. So can the violent actions of non-state actors; so can the threat of such action. Hate speech and trolling (which often involves threats of physical violence, as well as psychological intimidation) can therefore be unconstitutional forms of expression. People living in fear of social ostracism, such as Amish-style shunning, can hardly be said to enjoy religious freedom either. Here matters can get murky, because one’s freedom of expression (i.e. “You’re a blasphemer and I won’t associate with you”) may conflict with another’s freedom of conscience. Compound such speech with racial, class, gender and other forms of privilege, and what results may amount to an effective form of coercion. People who are in a position to set the boundaries of discourse—teachers, administrators of online fora, editors—should be mindful of the ways that they may be shutting down certain kinds of expression, and also (paradoxically) of the ways that they may be enabling other kinds of expression that should be shut down because they are themselves coercive. Mutatis mutandis, the same goes for all of us who enjoy various kinds of privilege. I’d say in general that educated white Western non-Muslims would be well-advised to refrain from caricaturing the prophet Muhammad, because our privilege might turn a would-be harmless joke into an expression of contempt for an underprivileged domestic Muslim minority. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, caricaturing the prophet Muhammad feels like an imperative if we are to preserve freedom of expression against violence and intimidation. It’s a messy business, but without the foundation of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, the whole edifice of democracy—and our minority religious practices—start to look shaky indeed.

And finally, if one of our own is ever elected to the Supreme Court, we should not rule in favour of mandatory offerings of roses for Epona on the public school buses—however much we might want to.

About DeoMercurio

I’m a Gaulish polytheist, now back living in lands ceded by the Council of Three Fires after several years’ sojourn in Anatolia and in the land of the Senecas, with frequent travels to Gaul along the way. My grandfather’s family came from the area around Trier, and I identify closely with the Treveri in my religious practice.
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1 Response to Freedom of religion: It works both ways

  1. Pingback: And for those who don’t like Gaul … there’s Gaul! :-) | Deo Mercurio

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