On January 12 the Freedom Forum, a non-profit organization whose mission is to “foster religious freedom for all” held a webinar entitled “African Americans & Religious Freedom: New Perspectives for Congregations & Communities.” The goal of the symposium, which included assorted African-American pastors, theologians and attorneys, was discussing how to redefine religious freedom to be more amenable to the experience of black Americans.
Panelists were plainly frustrated and distrustful at the meaning of ‘religious freedom’ in common parlance, opting to give it a different definition more rooted in non-white expressions of Christianity and other faiths. The symposium was largely held to promote a collection of essays by the speakers which summarized their views on religious freedom.
“American notions of liberty, prosperity and the divine are ideas that can mean everything and nothing at the same time… These terms — liberty, prosperity, God — are blank screens upon which we project dreams and nightmares. For me, the concept of religious freedom is of the same dubious pedigree. It means nothing. It means everything… Those who have always had religious freedom are those who support the work and aim of the ‘American Empire,’ those who disrupt the ‘Empire,’ it is those whose religious freedom has been sacrificed,” adding that “White Evangelicalism is the official faith of the ‘Empire.’”
For those uninitiated into the fields of post-colonial and deconstructivist studies, Lamar is basically saying that the concept of religious freedom has never had any objective basis in reality. Instead, it’s purely a rhetorical tool for the powerful to oppress the powerless.
It would be historically irresponsible to assert this has never been the case; as Charles Watson of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty noted there certainly have been religious justifications for American atrocities like slavery or the forced removal of the Native Americans.
“I don’t want a biblical noose around my neck and I don’t want God shackles around my feet,” said Watson.
The new meaning of religious freedom the panel hoped to promote seemed more or less synonymous with social progressivism, including total support for abortion and LGBTQ rights. This wasn’t something they were trying to hide – their reasoning being that freedom from economic, social and political oppression are a prerequisite to the practice of any faith.
Lamar said that in contrast to the nebulous conception of religious liberty promoted by the “American Empire,” the notion he could assent to was that of a “welcome table” where “I can sit and feast, no matter my culture, my religion, my language, who I love or where I live.”
At first impression this goal seems laudable. Who wouldn’t want the United States to be a “welcome table,” open to all? The issue with this notion and much of the overall panel was that it struck me as platitudinous and detached from how religious freedom works in its usual sense. I think we can all agree that we want America to be a tolerant nation where people are in general free to practice their faiths; the issue is where we draw the line.
The now famous Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case is an example. Jack Philips is a white Evangelical (and therefore an adherent to the “Empire’s” official faith?) who was sued by Colorado for refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage message on it. Even the non-conservative justices Breyer, Kagan and Kennedy thought it was a violation of Philips’ religious freedom, deciding in his favor 7-2.
Pursuant to this new definition of religious freedom, in order to ensure religious liberty the government should have forced Philips to express a viewpoint he did not believe in under penalty of losing his business. It’s hard to see how this furthers anyone’s religious liberty.
To take another example, consider the case of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the United States. Although common in majority-Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia it is illegal in the U.S., although rarely enforced. However, on January 13 it was announced that the Justice Department will bring charges against Zahra Badri for transporting a minor outside of the U.S. for the purpose of FGM.
Following the reasoning of the panel I witnessed it seems like the United States should allow this to take place. After all, Muslims, unlike White Evangelicals, are “disruptors” of the American “Empire” and are therefore oppressed by definition. If the day comes when a Muslim makes a defense of FGM in court on grounds of religious liberty will they be worthy of defense on the grounds that they are a “disrupter” of the American “Empire”?
It isn’t only ‘foreign’ seeming religions like Islam practiced by non-Europeans that run up against our laws, though. One of the first religious liberty cases to be considered by the Supreme Court was Reynolds vs. United States (1878) where Reynolds was put on trial for practicing polygamy.
He argued that, as a Mormon, his religious freedom to practice polygamy was being violated and therefore he should be allowed to keep his wives. The court disagreed and Reynolds was sent to prison. Reynolds, despite being white, clearly ran afoul of the American “Empire,” so does that mean polygamist Mormons deserve a seat at the “welcome table” Lamar spoke about?
To give a final example, in December the city council of Murdock, Minnesota (population 275) voted to allow a group of white-supremacist neopagans to set up shop in an abandoned Lutheran church. Fearful of being sued for violating the religious freedom of the Asatru Folk Assembly, the town allowed them to buy the building. According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, “The AFA is among a growing number of groups that seek to practice a pre-Christian, European spirituality. The AFA is unabashedly pro-white, according to statements on its website.”
So what does the Freedom Forum make of white neo-pagans? Clearly they’re not Christians of any kind and therefore run afoul of the American “Empire.” It’s easy to foresee a Supreme Court case where a neopagan group like the Asatru Folk Assembly argue on the grounds of religious liberty that they have the right to exclude non-whites. How exactly are we supposed to take the new definition of religious liberty and judge this case? Do they also get a spot at the welcome table?
The commonly used definition of religious liberty has meant the degree to which people are free to practice their faith, or lack thereof, without persecution from the government or society at large. This isn’t the place to do a full-on takedown of the postmodern philosophies that undergird the new definition of freedom of religion postulated by the webinar. But, the way it was discussed answers no questions about who exactly should and shouldn’t get to practice their faith.
The basic argument is that the United States is evil and therefore any religious groups it is oppressing must deserve freedom and any groups it isn’t oppressing are party to its evil. As Watson referenced, it’s true that Americans have done awful things in the name of religion. But, it isn’t telling the whole story to say that religious liberty has only ever been a rhetorical tool of oppression. If they wish to hold this view then they have the religious freedom to do so, but I hope the courts never adopt their stance.