Freedom of Religion

Are you for it, or against it?

As an Orthodox Christian, I am for religious tolerance.  When ,William Seward talked the United States government into buying Alaska from Russian in 1867, the Civil War had recently ended and people were looking to Westward expansion – and concerned about Indian uprisings that would interfere with ‘progress’.  To most people, the Alaskans were another native American threat that needed to be managed via the ‘Pennsylvania Plan’: removing native children from their families and villages, put them in Protestant boarding schools which forbid them to use their native language and practice their customs.  What they didn’t realize was that due to Russian Orthodox missionaries, Alaska was more literate than the ‘lower 48’ at that time, with some natives captaining and navigating ships that circumnavigated the globe multiple times.  Unfortunately, their appeals to Congress to protect their religious freedoms were ignored, with disastrous results that impact the people to this day.  (for a history of this time, see Fr. Michael Oleska’s Alaskan Missionary Spirituality).

With this past as a part of my ‘faith tradition’, I am still not sure I agree with the modern understanding of religious freedom.

The Bill of Rights defines religion as one of the ‘inalienable rights’, something that cannot be taken away because it is not something given to us by the government; it is a part of ‘how things are’ as given to us by the Creator (which is not defined).  Like much of the founding of the government, this was a compromise that leaves many (if not most) less than fully satisfied.  This was also a position of the federal government; not state government, for many of the states individually supported specific religions. Massachusetts financially supported local Congregational churches as late as 1830. It was Virginia that lead the way in tolerance, under the influence of European Rationalists and Protestant values, with support from minority groups like the Baptists (who theologically separate church and state).  This policy gradually became the norm for most states.

There was however, never a complete open toleration of all religions and religious practices.  Human and animal sacrifices are not permitted, as well as polygamy and child brides.  At times various native american practices have been outlawed (Ghost Dance and peyote).  In the last 150 years, many practices that were forbidden are now legal.

Modern thinking about religion is vastly different from the time of the Bill of Rights, and the modern Structuralist (Rationalist) approach, and post-modernism, while affirming religion, significantly redefine it, and ultimately destroy it.

Ever since Kant and Hagel, meaning and values have been pushed into an ‘upper story‘ where all meta-physical, meaning and value are considered to be non-rational. As Nietzsche put it “God is Dead”, so god is no longer a source for meaning or values.  This is the undisputed belief of modern thinking (both Structuralists and post-modernism).  Religion has changed from doctrines, practices and beliefs to a personal, internal spirituality (see Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion for a good discussion on the changes to the definitions of science and religion).  For modern Rationalists (Structuralists) the concept of religion is something to be disposed of as meaningless (sort of like Unicorns).  Post-modernists are willing to affirm religion, as long as we obey the bumper sticker and “Coexist”, but affirm it as long as we are willing to let them deconstruct any particular religion and let them redefine so that any ‘teeth’ of value and meaning have been pulled.  By definition, religion has nothing to say regarding practical issues such as abortion, marriage or sexual practices.

Since god is dead, religious freedom (along with any other rights) are no longer something inalienable, as there are no metaphysics and values ‘out there’.  Governments that follow this modern thinking may make laws affirming rights (such as abortion and gender identity), but at the expense of defining them as something the state grants, and hence can also take away.

The problem I face as a minority philosophy in this country (ie Patristic Orthodox Christianity) is how to affirm tolerance, yet also see the need for limits.  Any talk of sacramentality (ie: God working through and being reflected in the creation) sounds to many people an lunacy.  I want tolerance, as I want the freedom to express and live out my values (even as I mournfully watch others exercise their ‘freedom’ to destroy themselves by disregarding those values).  In some ways, I am not too concerned about the future of Christianity, as it started under Roman rule; which was no friend to anyone challenging Ceaser’s authority and divinity.  I don’t think it is likely that human sacrifice will be re-introduced soon (unless one puts abortion in that category); however, my real fear is what will happen to this ‘tolerant’ country when it encounters pre-Kantian thinking that is not tolerant – in particular I am thinking of certain threads of Muslim theology.

I need to be careful here as Muslim theology is somewhat diverse and varied.  Accusing all Muslims of terrorism is similar to blaming a Baptist or Quaker for the Crusades.    Yes, there are devout, peaceful Muslims; but don’t confuse Sufi with Wahhabi (the latter being a particular focus of concern).  Saudi Arabia is quite willing to use western tolerance to fund mosques wherever they can, but it is not a reciprocal policy that is open for the West to build churches in their country.  They will take advantage of our tolerance, but are less free to give it back (ie, to ‘Coexist’).  Orthodox Christians have a long and complex history with Muslims.  Mohammed was given protection by St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and in return he gave them a document of protection.  Yet there are innumerable saints who were martyred under the Ottoman Empire and are still martyred to this day in many places.  It is a complex issue that requires more than a blog to resolve.

I want freedoms and tolerance, but I also see the legitimate need for limits.  We need boundaries to protect us from each other.  The problem I face is that such conversations (of having limited freedoms) has no coinage in modern thinking.

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