Does Religious Freedom Exist in America?

The debate over whether or not America is a Christian nation is a long standing contentious one that continues to be relevant today. Although both sides can be effectively argued, historical, political as well as legal evidence has increasingly indicated that America is in fact, a Christian nation. Despite increasing secularization, the definition of religion used by the law as well as the government, is greatly influenced by Protestant Christian beliefs, which has consequently limited the “free exercise of religion” for those traditions and practices that differ from Protestant Christian ideals, both in the public and the private sphere. Evidence to support the above will include the 1920s Pueblo dance controversy and the Employment Division v. Smith case to illustrate this lack of “freedom of expression”, whilst the outlawing of Polygamy demonstrates the influence of white Protestant Christian morality in both the public and private sphere.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution based their discussions of religion on a Protestant understanding of the term, which presupposes a separation of the individual from the communal, of the sacred from the profane. This created a divide between “true” religion, which is understood as “private, voluntary, individual, textual and believed”; and “false” religion which is understood as “public, coercive, communal, oral, and enacted” (Sullivan 8). Although the Constitution cannot define religion since doing so would violate the establishment clause, its inherent white Protestant understanding of the term religion resulted in the law inevitably disavowing “free exercise” cases that showed signs of being a “false” religion. This is evident in the 1920s Pueblo Indian dance controversy wherein the sacred Pueblo dance ceremony was initially banned by the US government because of false claims of orgies and the exploitation of minors, claims that stemmed from the secrecy of the event. More importantly, however, it was banned because of Protestant tendency to associate “dancing with sexuality” (Wenger 4). These rumors served to justify President Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to take the Blue Lake away from Taos, until 1970 when it was finally returned to the tribe (Wenger).

Furthermore, the government allowed them to continue their tradition only when the case for the religious legitimacy of this Indian practice was argued on the basis of its comparison to Christian “practices of prayer and worship”, thereby clearly demonstrating that the conceptualization of other traditions in the political sphere were restricted to Protestant understanding of religion (Wenger 4). This led to many Pueblo leaders using the term “religion” to describe their indigenous ceremonies, which although proved to be beneficial in fighting “government suppression” in the dance controversy, was unfortunately u to successfully defend other Native American traditions. (Wenger 5).  Pueblo  efforts to protect “tribal systems of governance” as a part of their religion were futile since it it clashed with the dominant culture’s ideal of a “clear separation between the spheres of religion and politics” (Wenger 6). Similarly, Indian efforts to regain or protect sacred lands were often unfruitful when argued in terms of religious freedom since their collective land claims and the sacred quality attributed to nature did not fit into Protestant ideals of “private property” (Wenger 7). These practices were argued as violations of the US Constitution, a Constitution whose provisions on religion reflected the Protestant “Enlightenment framework”, emphasizing a understanding and application of religion as a matter of “individual conscience and belief” and not a communal belief (Wenger 11).

Another legal case that sheds light on the lack of “free exercise of religion” for those traditions that deviated from Protestant Christian ideals is the Employment Division v. Smith case. The two plaintiffs, Smith and Black had been fired by a state-run substance-abuse facility in Oregon because of their “religious use of peyote”, a controlled substance under Oregon narcotics law (Sullivan 26). The free exercise case was brought to court because of the refusal of the Oregon Department of Human Resources to pay them “unemployment compensation” (Sullivan 26). Smith and Black argued that their use of peyote had been an exercise of religion because it had been “within the sacramental context of the Native American Church” (Sullivan 26). However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Employment Division, claiming that a free exercise claim may hold true if a particular law was not a “law of general applicability”, but rather was designed to specifically target the religious activity of a group (Sullivan 27). This case demonstrates the limiting nature of the First Amendment, wherein the free exercise of religion can be said to encompass and allow for a variety of religious beliefs, but not religious practices, thereby indicating the limited legal conceptualization of what constitutes religion.

Additionally, the legislature engineered to outlaw polygamy and establish Utah statehood in the United States demonstrates the influence of Protestant Christian morals in the legal and political sphere. Most legislators who voted for anti-polygamy legislation believed that plural marriage was “blatantly immoral”, degraded women and “threatened the family”, undermining not just morality but the “moral polity as well” (Foster 67). This idea of a family unit consisting of the union of one man and one woman is a Protestant notion, and the construction of polygamy as encouraging “ licentiousness” was a clear violation of Protestant morality (Foster 55). This had repercussions both legally and politically, with the Edmunds’s bill denying the “right to vote” and to hold office to any polygamist, whilst the Edmunds-Tucker Act took it a step further and expanded the “power of federal law” in the territory of Utah (Foster 60-62).  Additionally, in 1883, President Arthur asked Congress to use “the stoutest weapons which constitutional legislation can fathom” to root out polygamy (Foster 62).

However, the most important evidence indicating the influence of Protestant Christian morality and the resulting lack of separation between church and state was a statement included in the passing of an enabling act for Utah statehood by Congress which asserted that “perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured” and “no inhabitant of said State shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship: Provided, that polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited” (Foster 66). Mormon deviation from the Protestant sexual ideal and the nuclear family structure was perceived as a such a great threat to the moral polity of the nation that the establishment of Utah statehood and the protection of its citizens’ rights were based on the disavowing of polygamy, clearly illuminating America as a Christian nation.

Nonetheless, it can be argued that there increasing secularization in the United States, where the concept of “secularization” does not refer to a “decline in religious belief”, but rather to an “increasing privatization of religion” and to the resulting decline in its “public or institutional authority” (Wenger 15). This is evident in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, in which the Supreme Court gave women the “right to terminate a pregnancy”, defining abortion as an issue “belonging to the private sphere, more like a religious preference than a deeply held social belief” (Dowland 113). Conservative Christians vehemently argued that the the phrase “woman’s choice” to describe abortion was a “direct assault on the gendered family order instituted by the Bible”, but despite the immense backlash from both the Catholic as well as the Christian community, abortion continues to be legal thus suggesting a decline in religious institutional authority (Dowland 123). However, it is important to recognize that to argue that America is a secular nation would be to argue that America is a Christian nation. Ideals of the separation of church and state, the primacy of the “individual conscience” and the lack of recognition allotted to communal and land-based traditions have all emerged from distinctively “Protestant theological debates” (Wenger 15).

Thus, to conclude, in the United States, the Protestant ideal of a separation of church and state was vehemently enforced in cases of indigenous traditions, and was a hypocritical enforcement given the religious nature of such an ideal. Furthermore, the existence of a lack of freedom of expression for those traditions that did not fall under Protestant conceptualization of “religion”, as well as the fundamental role of Protestant Christian morality in the legal and political sphere invariably testifies to the argument that America is in fact a Christian nation.


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