Out in the rural hinterlands, it’s not unusual to pass yards with “Protect Religious Freedom” signs. Religious Freedom has become a dog whistle in recent years, with the “Religion” part understood to mean the speaker’s preferred brand of Christianity, and “Freedom” meaning, in practice, the ability to force others, who may not necessarily believe the same way, to conform to the speaker’s religious ethic.
For example, if a pharmacist believes that abortion is wrong and that emergency contraception which prevents the implantation of an embryo is the same as abortion, some groups that claim to be fighting for religious freedom would support the pharmacist’s moral objection to dispensing the Plan B emergency contraceptive to a woman who needs it. Apologists cite her ability to “just go to another pharmacy,” but in smaller towns and rural areas, where it is likelier to come across a conscientious objector, there may not be a pharmacy within reasonable distance that both stocks the medicine and employs a pharmacist without a moral objection to performing their job, in essence forcing the woman to live by the religious rules of the pharmacists in town, whether she agrees with them or not.
Many, if not most, specific freedoms are reciprocal. If one person’s religious freedom is to be defended by defining it as the ability to bully others, it necessarily means that someone else will lack the freedom to live their conscience without being bullied. This is utterly counter to the intent of founders such as James Madison, who saw religious freedom as being essential for political and academic freedom to flourish. Although Madison’s Christian faith was important to him, he was able to separate his faith from his statecraft enough to provide breathing room for other faiths to live in peace. Indeed, Madison argued that a statutory preference for Christianity was a kind of cowardice, a kind of “ignoble and unchristian timidity” that assumed people wouldn’t be able to find truth for themselves. If Madison was right in his faith that opening up a free market of ideas would naturally draw forth the best results, one may conclude from the growing rejection of bully-Christianity (perceived as persecution by bully Christians) as the rightful tossing of a paradigm that long ago passed its expiration date.
Instead, let us witness another movement that is gaining momentum at exactly the time when we need a new vision and a new path forward. The protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux has grown into a much larger movement, with representatives from many Native American tribes and indigenous people from all over the world joining them in the fight. The encampment, which for many is a place of active prayer, has been surrounded and persecuted in ways that would call down the active wrath of most of the country if it had been perpetrated upon Christians instead of native people, with sacred sites and burial grounds destroyed and desecrated, and vicious dogs, pepper spray, tear gas, and arrest for the peaceful protesters defending what has become a practical and spiritual cause.
End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock (Preview), by Red Queen Media
The problems we’re facing from the rampant destruction of our ecosystem and the threat of more of the same for as far as the mind can see has led to a resurgence and reawakening of indigenous spirituality. Various global movements are finding common cause, from Idle No More in Canada, to Standing Rock, to native Hawai’ian efforts to block construction of a giant telescope on Mauna Kea, to the Saami people of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland fighting for self-determination and the ability to live in a traditional way. Since religion is arguably hardwired into the human brain and spirituality is a part of the human experience for most people and cultures throughout time and place, perhaps the best option is not necessarily to root it out in the name of Science, as some dogmatic atheists are wont to do nowadays, but instead to advance the idea of protecting religious freedom for the forms of religion that go the furthest towards making the world a better place to live. I’m sure James Madison would understand.
While the reciprocity of freedom means that protecting religious freedom for the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters would result in abandoning a pipeline that would represent a temporarily greater freedom of consumption for many, we’re used to this as a nation. Surely, if some believe that the ability to refuse contraception to women is a decision that can be made between a pharmacist and his God, then refusing to desecrate sacred land with oil spills is a decision that can be made between indigenous people and the forces they believe are sacred. And even if this cause does not resonate for the Evangelicals, let us pray that the next President nominates Supreme Court justices who will continue to defend religious freedom for the rest of us.