Archives For religious minorities

When Barack Obama won his presidential reelection bid in 2012, the biggest story about the immediate aftermath was how America’s shifting demographics had delivered the victory (and that Nate Silver was right all along, but that’s a different story).  A big sub-headline was the rise of religiously unaffiliated voters (“nones”), who now rival the evangelical Christians in size, but also important was the difference between the religious coalitions that supported the presidential nominees. Sarah Posner called it the “great religious realignment.”

“A recent Pew survey found that there are now equal numbers of white evangelicals and unaffiliated voters, and a Public Religion Research Institute poll found similar results. I noted at the time of the PRRI survey that the bulk of Romney’s base was coming from white conservative evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics, while Obama’s “support comes from a more diverse group: 23% from the unaffiliated, 18% from black Protestants, 15% from white mainline Protestants, 14% from white Catholics, 8% from Latino Catholics, and 7% from non-Christians. Romney draws just 3% of his base from Latino Catholics, 2% from non-Christians, and an unmeasurable portion from black Protestants.”

In short, Republicans rely primarily on conservative Catholics and evangelicals, while Democrats make up that demographic shortfall by relying on a diverse array of religious voters, including religious minorities and “nones.” Now that we are in the second year of Obama’s second term, with partisan politics seemingly as divisive as they ever have been, Gallup polling revisits religious groups and finds that the faiths who still approve of Obama’s performance has remained relatively stable.

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“Seventy-two percent of U.S. Muslims approved of the job President Barack Obama was doing as president during the first six months of 2014, higher than any other U.S. religious group Gallup tracks. Mormons were least approving, at 18%. In general, majorities of those in non-Christian religions — including those who do not affiliate with any religion — approved of Obama, while less than a majority of those in the three major Christian religious groups did.”

Gallup points out that overall approval in each group has cumulatively dropped between 5-7% over the last 5 years but that Muslims, Nones, and Jews have largely remained supportive.

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“Similarly, Muslims have been the most approving among the religious groups in each time period. Jewish Americans and Americans with no religious preference have also exceeded the national average job approval in each time period, tracking each other closely.”

Gallup ends its analysis by stating that: “Clearly, members of various religions view the president quite differently.” However, I would state that, aside from Mormons, who closely ally themselves with evangelical Christians socially and politically, religious minorities in the United States generally see Obama as someone who isn’t beholding to a particular socially conservative strain of Christianity. So even though Muslims, “nones,” “others,” and Jews aren’t as happy with Obama’s performance as they were, it seems that they are mindful that a Republican replacement might be less well-disposed regarding their concerns.

Considering the power and influence conservative Christians maintain in the Republican party it seems unlikely that comprehensive efforts to woo religious minorities will be forthcoming, despite that fact that a fiscally conservative but socially liberal candidate could theoretically perform very well on a national level, not only with some religious minorities, but with Millennial generation voters as well. That said, barring major shifts in tone and policy, it looks like religious minorities are sticking with Obama, and the Democrats, at least for now.

It appears that the controversial move by Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to retract a paid position for a Wiccan prison chaplain was merely a harbinger of much bigger things. The CBC reports that Toews, who oversees Canada’s penitentiaries, has eliminated all paid part-time chaplain services, effectively making government prison chaplaincy a Christian-only affair.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

“Inmates of other faiths, such as Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews, will be expected to turn to Christian prison chaplains for religious counsel and guidance, according to the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is also responsible for Canada’s penitentiaries. [...] Toews’ office says that as a result of the review, the part-time non-Christian chaplains will be let go and the remaining full-time chaplains in prisons will now provide interfaith services and counselling to all inmates.”

Toews’ office said in a statement to the CBC that “[Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.” This lead one Sikh chaplain to ask the obvious question: “How can a Christian chaplain provide spirituality to the Sikh faith, because they don’t have that expertise.”

Wiccan chaplain Kate Hansen, speaking with the National Post, said she was disturbed by this turn of events.

“I’m disturbed that the government believes that all these minority faith people can be dealt with by Christian chaplains, I don’t know where they’ll get all the minority faith volunteers from. I don’t know how they’ll make that work. I can’t think of why they would think this is a good way to treat people.”

So from this point forth, all non-Christian chaplaincy services to federal prisons must either be provided by volunteers, or the prisoners: Wiccan prisoners, Pagan prisoners, Buddhist prisoners, First Nations prisoners, must all turn to the full-time (Christian) chaplains for spiritual guidance and resources. Luckily all Christian chaplains are heavily trained in dealing with the spiritual needs of religious minorities, right? I mean, it seems inconceivable that this would be an invitation for some to abuse their power, to push for jailhouse conversions in exchange for proper treatment.

Frankly, I’m still reeling from this announcement. I wasn’t overly surprised when Toews decided to engage in a little discriminatory Witch-kicking, our community has weathered those slings and arrows for years, but this is something far more audacious. Toews and his office are essentially doubling down, saying that a full-time Christian chaplaincy is enough to handle all faiths, no matter what their history or relationship with Christianity might be. It’s stunning. Whether he’ll be allowed to get away with it is, I suppose, up to the Harper administration and Canadian voters. I’ll update on this story as it continues to develop.

What’s it like to be a religious minority in a Christian-dominated culture? Jews on First has published a must-read in-depth exploration of what it’s like for Jewish students going to public schools in the South, consistently exposed to peer pressure and conversion attempts by their Christian classmates, behavior often (directly and indirectly) supported by faculty.

Hint: The "Fifth Quarter" is about Jesus.

Hint: The “Fifth Quarter” is about Jesus.

“It can be the little stuff, like my classmates wishing me to have a ‘blessed day’. I know that really means that Jesus blesses you,” says Jane. “I have a friend who introduces me as her ‘Jewish friend, Jane’. It’s always in your face. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded that I’m a Jew.” [..] One parent relates how his son would eat breakfast in the school cafeteria when a group of athletes would come in and “perform” for the students. “They would basically lift weights for about 30 minutes,” then go to the microphone and “announce that Christ helped them become athletes. After five or 10 minutes of sermon, they would pray and leave,” but meanwhile the students eating breakfast were not allowed to leave the cafeteria and were obviously a captive audience with no option to “not hear.”

Because court rulings have largely forbade faculty and staff from directly proselytizing, local churches use various tricks like the aforementioned “performance” to introduce stealth missionary work into the student body. One Rabbi in Atlanta notes that Christian students are urged by their churches to work towards the conversion of non-Christian students.

“…according to Rabbi Greene, one of the largest evangelical churches in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, even provides literature to its young members about “how to approach your Jewish friends.” He calls the effort “love bombing.” Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim, which isn’t far from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, agrees that ‘they are very aggressive in their proselytizing and will teach Christianity to anyone who will listen. One of my former Hebrew School students came to me recently and said he accepted Christ; he’s confused.’”

In public school systems that are religiously and culturally diverse, the issue of student conversions is almost non-existent, evangelical Christian students are simply one voice among several; but when your school is in a region dominated by mission-minded Christians, the tone and tenor of student interactions suddenly changes. Instead of one voice, Christianity becomes the only voice, the dominant voice, among the student body. Those who don’t fit into that template find themselves consistently battered by the expectation that they too will fall in line. Christian leaders in these areas are well aware of this power, which is why they fight for state constitutional amendments that open “the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing” and “religious freedom” laws that they know will benefit the majority at the expense of minorities.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Public schools are supposed to be secular by design, they have to serve the needs of all students, not simply those who are in the majority. These initiatives by local churches and missionary groups are trying to “game” the system by turning the student body into a peer pressure engine against non-Christian students. These are not natural conversion experiences that arise after deep contemplation or introspection, this is the equivalent of religious bullying, turning all those who resist into social outsiders. The experience of these Jewish students and parents is shared by other religious minorities in deeply Christian areas of the country, including modern Pagans. Sadly, these students often have to turn to outside help, or even litigation, to make sure their own religious autonomy is respected, as the faculty and staff are often sympathetic to these conversion efforts.

Christians, if they truly want to see earnest conversions among non-Christian populations, need to understand that these tactics do nothing but create ill will and adversarial feelings among parents and non-Christian religious leaders. It makes them the enemy, and they turn the message of Christ into a sort of bludgeon in which to control behavior they don’t like.

According to Grey Matter Research, Americans think our country is far more religiously diverse than it actually is. In a survey of 747 adults the research and consulting firm found that most underestimated the size of Christianity and over-estimated the size of atheists, Muslims, and other religious minorities.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

“The typical American adult pegs religious affiliation in the U.S. as follows:  24% Catholic, 20% Protestant, 19% unaffiliated, 9% Jewish, 9% atheist or agnostic, 7% Muslim, 7% Mormon, and 5% from all other religious groups. In reality, according to the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans are right on target with the proportion of Catholics and the “all other” category, but way off target on the rest of the landscape. The typical American badly underestimates how many Protestants there are in the country, and way overestimates the presence of religious minorities such as Mormon, Muslim, and atheist/agnostic.”

In fact, if you check the Pew Forum data from 2008, you’ll see that Muslims in America only comprise 0.6% of the population. In contrast “Unitarians and other liberal faiths” comprise 0.7% and “New Age” faiths (ie Pagans) comprise around 0.4%. There are more Buddhists in the United States than there are Muslims. Likewise, respondents guessed large for  atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated. Speaking with the Religion News Service, Grey Matter president Ron Sellers noted that media attention is a likely reason for the over-inflated guesses of non-Christian or non-religious populations.

Sellers also mentioned that with Mitt Romney running for president as a Mormon and the current emphasis on Islamic-American relations, “smaller faith groups also may be getting disproportionate media coverage.”

Likewise, younger Americans, who tend to have more friends who are atheists or religiously unaffiliated, guesses in favor of their own experience. Also unsurprising is the news that adherents of a particular tradition tend to guess high on their own numbers.

Not going to become the 3rd largest religious group any time soon.

Not going to become the 3rd largest religious group any time soon.

“One thing that is clear from this research is that people tend to overestimate the proportion of their own faith group.  Among people who identify with the Catholic Church, the average estimate is that 39% of the country is Catholic.  Not only is this estimate much higher than it is among non-Catholics, it is far higher than the reality of 24%. Similarly, among people who identify with a Protestant faith perspective, the average estimate is that 27% of the population is Protestant.  While this is far higher than the numbers among non-Protestants, it is still almost half the correct figure. Among people who identify as atheists or agnostics, the average estimate is that 16% of the American population is atheist or agnostic.  As with Catholics, not only is this estimate far higher than among any other group, but it is much higher than the reality.  Finally, among people who express no particular faith identification, the average perception is that 35% of Americans believe in God but have no actual religious preference.  Again, this is nearly double the average American’s perception, and far higher than the real figure in the U.S.”

So what’s the take-home message of this data? Sellers says that “this skewed perception of religion in America may benefit smaller faith groups and be detrimental to Protestants.” In other words we are over-estimating the influence of religious minorities, and under-estimating the influence of Protestant Christians. This may seem like a good thing, a hastening of the demographic shifts many of us existing in religious minorities have been waiting for, but it could also feed into the fears of certain Christians who are increasingly uneasy with our mere existence. Then again, maybe feeling like a religious minority could teach a valuable lesson to those willing to encounter it.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber [...] Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture.”

People are over-estimating religious minorities, and those with no religion at all, but maybe this misconception will instill a willingness to embrace secularism once more, to re-enforce those church-state separations so that the “others” don’t exert undue influence. In which case, beware Christians, Pagans are growing at an alarming rate! Quick! Everyone join Americans United for The Separation of Church and State, it’s your only hope!

There was a time in America’s history that, when talk turned to religion, it was widely assumed you meant Protestant forms of Christianity. Eventually, and with some struggle, this was broadened to include Catholics and Jews, creating a tri-faith “Judeo-Christian” conception of faith in the United States. Groups outside this understanding were, at the time, either too small, or considered too strange and foreign, to be seriously considered. Thanks to a number of different factors, immigration, social upheaval, and shifting attitudes, different religious groups and movements took hold and found fertile soil here. Now the Judeo-Christian understanding is increasingly threadbare as Pagans, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, African diasporic faiths, syncretic movements, renewed indigenous traditions, and those who claim no formal faith at all, demand equal treatment and consideration under the law. This has created a unique friction as those who cling to the  old conceptions of faith in America encounter a pluralism that threatens their conception of moral and societal order.

A perfect example of this friction is displayed in the case of Louisiana’s new, expansive, school voucher program that would funnel government money to private schools, including religiously-run schools. There are a number of things that are being challenged in the new law, and it remains to be seen if it will ultimately stand, but some early supporters are having second thoughts now that it’s apparent that “religious” schools don’t automatically mean “Christian” schools.

Rep. Valarie Hodges

Rep. Valarie Hodges, worried about Muslim school vouchers.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Republican who represents East Baton Rouge and Livingston, now says she wishes she hadn’t voted for the Jindal voucher bill. “I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” Hodges told theLivingston Parish News. “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school,” Hodges added. The newspaper reported that she “mistakenly assumed that ‘religious’ meant ‘Christian.’” [...]  “Unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion,” Hodges told the News. “We need to insure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”

You see, while Christianity is still the most popular form of religious adherence in the United States, they no longer operate unchallenged. Since this is a pluralistic, secular, country, the law is prohibited from favoring one faith over another, and there are people willing to fight so that ethos is enforced. However, religiously conservative (predominantly Christian) lawmakers and advocacy groups, in an effort to roll back disestablismentary reforms made in the 20th century, have floated a larger number of “religious freedom” laws, many aimed at public schools, that they hope will create a status quo which benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. Branding any space carved out for non-Christian rites as an assault on their free exercise. Driving home an ethic that says religious freedom isn’t about celebrating diversity, but clearing space for the majority.

Perhaps I’m overstating this? Don’t listen to me, listen to the Texas House Research Organization’s own analysis of a then-pending student “religious liberties” bill.

The bill could serve as a tool to proselytize the majority religious view, Christianity, in Texas schools. The United States is a nation made up of people of many faiths. Children are required to attend school and should be permitted to do so without someone else’s religion being imposed on them … A school should be a religion-free zone – leaving religion for homes, places of worship, and individual hearts.”

You see, the “other faiths you don’t like might benefit” scenario presented above is more a gambit than a true threat. In most cases the tyranny of the majority, once unconstrained by the law, proceeds to do its level best to silence all dissenting voices through threats, intimidation, violence, or simply peer pressure (and if you don’t believe that, you don’t remember high school). The real problem is that the coalition of groups working for the long-term shifts in how schools and the public square deal with religion, have to balance that with their fear-mongering that paints groups like Pagans, or more often Muslims, as a serious threat to their conception of a “Christian Nation.” If you delegitimize minority faith communities by saying they aren’t real religions, that the First Amendment doesn’t even apply to them, or that they are sleeper cells for terror, your constituents will be shocked when they learn they have equal access to the law.

Of course, religion is not a synonym for Christianity, and recently two federal appeals courts have handed down decisions against allegedly “open” public invocation policies that were too uniformly Christian. So perhaps all the maneuvering to reintroduce Christianity into our government and school curriculum through the side-door will ultimately collapse, especially as religious minorities become increasingly proactive in establishing their rights. What’s important if we want to stop these initiatives that (consciously or not) twist religion into meaning simply “Christianity” is an increasing commitment to engagement from religious minorities. Only by standing up and being heard, by destroying the notion that this is solely a Judeo-Christian nation, can we progress to a point where American pluralism means something. We have to pursue a policy of both fighting these laws that are designed to benefit the majority faith, while also promising that we will seek full and public participation in them should they pass.

The idea of the United States as a pluralistic, secular, society where no single religious expression is enshrined has always gotten push-back, and experienced robust dissent over the years. To many, America is a “Christian” nation (sometimes a “Judeo-Christian” nation), and all others live here under their sufferance. The Rev. Dennis Terry’s recent comments at a Rick Santorum presidential rally typify the more vituperative side of this particular sentiment.

“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! [...] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Terry clearly articulates a popular view among conservative Christians concerning religious freedom. To these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. To combat this “war on religion” (ie religion = Christianity) a variety of laws have been passed at the state level in order to “protect” the religious freedom of the overwhelming majority. A recent example is the new Florida law enabling students to give “inspirational messages” at school events.

“SB 98 states that its purpose “is to provide students with the opportunity for formal or ceremonious observance of an occasion or event.” Although “prayer” is never used in the bill, opponents claim it allows religious messages to be delivered in public schools. They also question allowing students to have an unrestrained venue to air their opinions at a school event.”

Such measures are almost always worded carefully to avoid legal challenge, though the wink-wink, nudge-nudge subtext is that it will allow majority Christian schools to have de facto sectarian Christian prayer so long as it’s a student willing to say it. As Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, put it: “legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp.” It’s a swamp that Tennessee seems ready to plunge into as well.

“The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden was approved by the House Education Committee on a voice vote. The companion bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Holt said he proposed the legislation after talking with a concerned school board member in his district. He said the proposal would allow school districts to develop a so-called “student speaker policy” for school officials to follow.”

Here’s the thing though, while such laws almost always privilege the majority religion, it also opens the door to expressions of non-Christian religion within public schools (at least if the law if applied fairly).  Prayers to Jesus are all well and good, but what happens when a Wiccan gives an “inspirational” message?

Rep. Richard Montgomery, a Sevierville Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said he likes the idea of the bill, but believes it’s going to cause an uproar when a student decides to discuss a not-so-popular religion, such as Wicca. “You might have 1 percent that actually believe that way, and 99 percent don’t believe that way,” he said. “You’re going to have an uproar out of this world in a lot of communities.”

This sentiment was echoed by David Barkey, Religious Freedom Counsel for The Anti-Defamation League, when asked for comment on the new Florida law.

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

“Our public schools are for all children regardless of their religion. But this law could require children as young as five to observe prayers to Allah, Buddha, Jesus or other faiths contrary to their religious upbringing at mandatory student assemblies. It is completely contrary to our public schools’ inclusive nature, and the law will only serve to divide students, schools and communities along religious or other lines. In America, the question of one’s religion or faith is extremely personal and private. It is not a question that is put to the discretion of government or other people. To ensure all children’s religious freedom, we urge school districts not to implement this imprudent law.”

Despite these warnings, student “religious liberties” laws have already been passed in Arizona and Texas, places where the majority feels confident that these laws will act as proselytization tools of the majority faith. Think I’m overstating this? Don’t listen to me, listen to the Texas House Research Organization’s own analysis of the then-pending bill.

“The bill could serve as a tool to proselytize the majority religious view, Christianity, in Texas schools. The United States is a nation made up of people of many faiths. Children are required to attend school and should be permitted to do so without someone else’s religion being imposed on them … A school should be a religion-free zone – leaving religion for homes, places of worship, and individual hearts.”

In truth, the “a Wiccan might be allowed to invoke the Goddess publicly” scenario is more a gambit than a true threat. It can occasionally work to stymie Christian overreach into the public sphere, but in many other cases, those lone non-Christian students who speak out face incredible intimidation and threats. In most cases the tyranny of the majority, once unconstrained by the law, proceeds to do its level best to silence all dissenting voices through threats, intimidation, violence, or simply peer pressure. That said, this new wave of “student expression” laws aren’t, legally speaking, bullet-proof. There’s a new legal precedent being built that looks not just at the openness and neutrality of a law’s language, but how well it maintains a balance of religious and philosophical viewpoints.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

“…legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — itshould send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. Itshould not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one.Infrequent references to specific deities, standing alone, donot suffice to make out a constitutional case. But legislativeprayers that go further — prayers in a particular venue that repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behinda particular faith — transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause. Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggestthat some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

While that decision looked at legislative prayer, it isn’t so far a stretch to see that precedent being applied to government-funded public schools as well. If a school enacts a policy under a student free expression law, and the vast majority of “inspirational messages” are endorsing one single sectarian message, it could be seen a an official endorsement of religion, even if the teachers and administrators never utter a word. That gives adherents to minority faiths some hope, but as challenges work their way through the courts, we still face the very real situation of schools in several states where Christian expressions of faith are going to receive pride of place, marginalizing Pagan students.

The problem with these attempts to codify “religious freedom” into law is that almost always benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. I have seen time and time again, in a number of different circumstances, when laws and policies that are supposed to be viewpoint neutral end up empowering one expression of faith in the public square. That’s bad when it involves adults struggling over the issue, but it becomes pernicious when we use our children as proxies in a fight over the nature of religious freedom and secularism within our country. It shows just how desperate and anxious sections of our  Christian majority have become.

Lets talk about religious freedom, shall we? It seems that the religious news feeds are consumed with the notion lately, all centered on coverage for birth control and emergency contraception. For those who haven’t been following the controversy, it all stems from a new Department of Health and Human Services rule that would require employers to provide contraception in their health care plans. This new rule would apply to all employers, including schools and hospitals run by religious organizations, though churches and businesses that primarily hire people of their own faith were granted exemptions. This prompted a firestorm of controversy, particularly from Catholics, who claimed the new rule trampled their religious freedoms.

The all-male, all-Abrahamic, panel on religious freedom.

The all-male, all-Abrahamic, panel on religious freedom.

The Obama Administration countered by creating a new compromise that would make contraception coverage a direct relationship with their insurance provider in instances where a religious employer objected to offering coverage. While the compromise mollified some Catholic institutions, Roman Catholic Bishops, along with a growing chorus of conservative protestants and evangelicals, are doubling down in their opposition. Now, it isn’t simply about Catholic hospitals and other employers run by a religious organization, but about any employer who doesn’t morally agree with birth control (despite the fact that many states already mandate contraception coverage). Hence the recently voted-down Blunt Amendment that would have created unprecedented conscience exceptions to employers providing health insurance.

“But Blunt’s proposal doesn’t just apply to religious employers and birth control. Instead, it would allow any insurer or employer, religiously affiliated or otherwise, to opt out of providing any health care services required by federal law—everything from maternity care to screening for diabetes. Employers wouldn’t have to cite religious reasons for their decision; they could just say the treatment goes against their moral convictions. That exception could include almost anything—an employer could theoretically claim a “moral objection” to the cost of providing a given benefit. The bill would also allow employers to sue if state or federal regulators try to make them comply with the law.”

Conservative activists think that this is a winning wedge issue, claiming that there is a “war on religion” (or at least religious freedom) underway, promising apocalyptic results should Obama get a second term. Meanwhile, conservative pundits seem to have gone over the edge in their attacks on law student Sandra Fluke, who gave testimony on why contraception coverage was important. This was after a controversial House panel on the contraception rule that included only men. All of this exists in an atmosphere where contraception, abortion, and women’s health seem to be under a level of scrutiny and attack not seen in years. 2011 and 2012 have been record years for abortion restrictions, and it seems like we are re-arguing debates that had been, for many, largely settled.

So, with all this talk about religious freedom, about a war on religion, where are the voices of minority religions? We seem to hear all about what Catholics and evangelicals think about contraception, and occasionally we even hear from a Muslim, but what about the millions of Americans who are outside the conservative Abrahamic paradigm, or the millions who are but disagree with their conservative brothers and sisters? As religion professor Anant Rambachan, a Hindu, recently pointed out Christianity isn’t the only religion that has opinions about various social issues.

“It is important that our voices also be offered in the public square. This amendment threatens to enshrine in law the perspective of particular religions and marginalize others. Once you start enshrining Christian morality into law, you inherently limit the religious freedoms of non-Christian faiths.”

Instead of being about religious freedom, this debate, according to Danielle Tumminio, is becoming increasingly about how members of one religion can treat members of another religion.

“The issue, then, is really about how Catholics treat non-Catholics. After all, presumably Catholics would not want birth control — it’s all the other folks who do. Which makes this a debate not about religious freedom but about how people of one faith care for those who do not share their beliefs.”

The preferred defense against such arguments is that individuals can simply not apply at employers who they disagree with, or not frequent businesses who don’t share their moral views, but that isn’t always an option. Particularly when the only hospital near you might be a Catholic hospital, or a town is dominated by conservative Christian business owners, which is far more towns than you think. It simply isn’t feasible for all the non-Christians to move to a socially liberal area and only find employment with non-Christian employers. We are supposed to be living in a secular society, one that not only protects the religious liberties of hospital owners, but also protects the rights of individuals who might need care at one. As such, compromises need to be made, or else the grand experiment of our republic fails.

Religious exemptions must have limits or they are useless in protecting the rights of individuals and groups who may disagree with a certain faith’s beliefs. Once you extend religious/moral exemptions to any and all private business it would quickly create areas in the United States where certain groups are “relegated to a special untouchable status,” leading to the ostracism of a variety of communities and increasing “balkanization.” Scenarios where Pagans suddenly find it increasingly hard to find businesses that will serve them aren’t some cautionary fantasy tale. If the level of religious exemptions currently favored by certain politicians were allowed to become reality, it could lead to tacitly enforced “no-go” areas for non-Christians.

It’s easy to forget that it was once Catholics who helped usher in a sweeping disestablishment of religion in the United States. We once lived in a “Protestant America,” one where Franklin D. Roosevelt could safely opine that “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” Carlton J.H. Hayes, the first Catholic co-chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, maintained that “in this country Protestants have the major responsibility for assuring justice and true toleration to non-Protestants, not because they are Protestants but because they are [the] majority group.” Today, Catholics and Evangelicals are the most powerful Christian groups in America. They are the majority group. As such, they can no longer pretend to be the trod-upon minority of years past, can no longer refuse to own their own power and privilege in our society. While we must certainly guarantee their religious freedoms, it must now be weighed against the rights of any and all who don’t fit into their conceptions of morality or a well-ordered society. Any religious exemption in a secular pluralistic nation must be weighed against how that exemption will affect the millions who don’t believe as they do.

The compromise offered by the Obama Administration seems more than fair to the moral sensibilities of Catholics and other groups opposed to contraception. Any steps further would enshrine a status quo that simply privileges the majority, and create a rights system that is beholden to whichever religious group is currently in power. While that may seem ideal to Catholics and evangelicals now, I would remind them that no group’s fortunes prevail forever, and there may come a day generations from now when Pagan hospitals are asking for exemptions from the desires of Christian patients. At such a moment, they will no doubt want the majority to be extra-sensitive to their beliefs and needs, to their different moral views.

A recent essay by Jay Michaelson at Religion Dispatches, and a post by fellow Patheos blogger Fred Clark, shone new light into a phenomenon that I’ve pondered for a long time now: the general anxiety over America’s (and more broadly, the West’s) shifting spiritual practices and demographics. Michaelson, taking note of a recent anti-Yoga hit-piece in the New York Times, blasted a certain tendency to “ridicule any non-Western, non-rationalistic, non-neurotic spiritual practice.”

“How ironic to criticize spiritually-minded people for indulging themselves, when what’s really indulgent is to coddle the fear of anything that might disturb the status quo, might actually attack the neurosis and doubt that make a successful reporter tick. Don’t lose your edge, that’s the important part. Don’t ever give in to—dare I say it—opening your heart.”

Michaelson goes on to equate this rationalist prejudice with “the fears of a Santorum or a Bachmann.” Which brings me to Clark’s post, which links to pieces discussing Public Policy Polling’s 3rd annual TV news trust poll. It found, as it did in previous polls, that while liberals and independents trust a wide variety of television news sources, conservatives tend to trust just one: Fox News. While this study says interesting things about political polarization and epistemic closure, I think it also says interesting things about religion and spirituality in the United States. For Fox News also plays on the anxiety concerning the shifting sands of spirituality, but does so in a manner quite different from the snobbish ridicule of a New York Times, for them its about a culture war between Christianity and the forces of secularism. See, for example, their coverage of Buncombe County Board of Education’s policy on distributing religious materials. While most outlets focused on Ginger Strivelli, a local Witch who challenged the distribution of Bibles, the Fox News piece emphasizes cultural change and upheaval.

“Traditionally, that “grand experiment” has involved Judaism and a handful of Christian denominations. But as non-traditional faiths spread into new communities, longstanding customs such as prayer, Christmas plays and Bibles that once went unquestioned in public schools are finding themselves under increased scrutiny. “Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, not on Wiccan principles,” Bobby Honeycutt, who attended public schools in Weaverville during the 1970s, said. “Our children have access to more non-Christian print material in the libraries and online than they really do Christian stuff,” he said.”

For someone who believes a move away from Christian principles is a vital threat to America’s power and stability, passages like that must only reinforce their worry. So in different ways, these mainstream media outlets from across the political spectrum continue to feed this anxiety, one that is then exploited by canny politicians.  So many stories involving non-Christian faiths or practices, when analyzed, just feed into this larger meme.

And on, and on, and on. As religious minorities continue to press for equal treatment, as more and more Americans engage with practices perceived to be outside the accepted cultural boundaries of normalcy, so the anxiety ratchets up. How Pagan is Halloween? How Hindu will Yoga make you? Should you even vote for a non-Christian? Who does this anxiety serve, and why is it being peddled so fiercely by so many? It all comes down to fear of a post-Christian planet, a world where the West is no longer dominated by one religious or cultural context.

Pagans dance in "nonreligious" Estonia. Photo: BBC.

Back in August of 2011, I wrote about statistical models and studies concerning the slow decline of Christian dominance, and how as the population of religiously non-affiliated individuals grow, their preferences start to become attractive to more and more people. While this shift will hardly see Christianity’s statistical dominance toppled any time soon, it does mean a future where compromise and coexistence will be emphasized over top-down hegemony.

“The future isn’t about dominance, but about coexistence. Many faiths and philosophies sitting at the table, instead of one (or two) faith groups telling everyone else what the agenda is. The numbers are shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order. The near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents, but they’ll soon lose their unified monopoly on social and political agendas. Alongside the accepted Christians-Catholics-Jews tri-faith understanding that emerged in the early 20th century will be the Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, practitioners of indigenous religions, and yes, Muslims.”

What can we do? While there’s little that can be done to stop the anxieties that come from slow and massive demographic changes, we can demand accountability and balance from our media outlets, engage in outreach and interfaith dialog where it is appropriate, and work to ensure that the boundaries between Church and State hold firm. At the end of the day, we have to understand that this anxiety is really a testament to how influential religious minorities in the United States, and in the West, have become. As trade unionist Nicholas Klein said in 1918: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” We are no longer being ignored, the time of ridicule and attack is at hand, but as visionaries we know that the time of monuments will come.

On Monday Republican South Carolina Representative Tim Scott, at a South Carolina Tea Party conference that also included presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, made a rather dubious assertion concerning religion in America.

Rep. Tim Scott in SC: "The greatest minority under assault today are Christians. No doubt about it."
@mviser
Matt Viser

Christians are the “greatest minority under assault today?” Where does that come from? While it’s true that “the religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories,” the statistical pie, no matter how you slice it, shows Christianity is the dominant form of religion in the United States. In addition, Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, with nearly 37% of the world’s Christians making their home in the Americas. Now, are there countries where Christianity is an endangered minority? Of course, but the United States is not even close to being one. Yet time and again we hear a persecution narrative that paints Christians in North America as though they were living in Iran or North Korea. Conservative Christians have painted the Obama administration as waging a “war on religion,” with figures like New Gingrich decrying the “bigotry” of the current president. That’s nothing new for Gingrich, who claimed  in 2009 that Christians were “surrounded” by “paganism”.

“I am not a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator. [...] I think this is one of the most critical moments in American history. We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism.”

So it seems we really need to start clearly defining terms like “minority” and “persecution” when we are talking about religion in this country.  Consult any dictionary or encyclopedia, and they’ll tell you that a minority faith is smaller than the majority faith in a country or region. In South Carolina, home to Rep. Scott, 45% of residents are evangelical Christians, 18% are mainline protestant Christians, and 8% are Catholics. Guess what that adds up to? You guessed it! A majority! Catholicism taken alone outnumbers all non-Christian faiths in South Carolina combined. Yet we are led to believe that it is Christians who are under “assault.” As I’ve said before, Christianity has a historical and theological persecution narrative, which can unfortunately become something of a complex that distorts reality,  instead of calling its adherents towards a witness of tolerance and coexistence for all.

Republican Rep. Tim Scott and Newt Gingrich in November, 2011. Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.

Republican Rep. Tim Scott and Newt Gingrich in November, 2011. Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.

If Rep. Scott were clear-eyed on the issue of religion he’d see which religious groups were truly struggling in his state. He’d see a Wiccan ostracized and harassed when she objected to sectarian government prayer (and later held up as an example of Christians being denied their freedom of religion), he’d see Pagans in local interfaith groups fighting to be recognized as something other than “other,” a place where any religion can get a religiously-themed license plate, so long as it isn’t a Wiccan wanting one. Despite this, we are forced through the looking glass into an inverted world where the increase of freedom and rights for a non-Christian group somehow decreases their rights and freedoms. It’s as if anything short of total hegemony were oppression.

Yesterday, in addition to it being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it was also National Religious Freedom Day, the anniversary of when the Virginia General Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson‘s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That statute provided the framework for religious liberty in the United States, ensuring free exercise for all citizens.

“Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”

As Jefferson himself said, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” So even if Scott’s nightmare scenario were true, if Christianity were shrunk to the size of Paganism, Hinduism, or Buddhism in America, they, like us, would still have the secular protections of State to save us from the worst excesses of religious majoritarianism. If Scott, and Gingrich, and other politicians truly believe that Christianity is under threat, all the more reason to vigorously defend religious liberty, and the separation of Church and State, lest the tyranny of a imaginary non-Christian majority sweep into power.

We in the West live in a world that is dominated and shaped by Christianity. That dominance may be fading in places, particularly in Europe, but few can deny that Christians continue to occupy a place of cultural and political privilege. This is especially true in the United States, where an unofficial religion test of our political candidates for national office is enforced by various pressure groups, religious leaders, and our own (theoretically secular) media.

As America’s favorite satirist put it:

“Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion… perhaps around their necks? And maybe — dare I dream it? — maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.”

The simple fact is that Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, and nearly 37% of the world’s Christians make their home in the Americas. Despite this dominance, or perhaps because of it, many Western Christians feel uneasy about the future, thinking that some secular/pagan/Islamic overthrow is just around the bend. This fear is often exploited by politicians to win votes, framing any limitation on Christianity or Christian institutions as a stalking horse for persecutions.

“You don’t want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.”Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago

I think few realize how limited the discussion of religion really is in our media, often limited to debates between liberals and conservatives (or progressives and traditionalists) within Christianity, sometimes with a token Jewish or secular voice thrown in. Any deviance from this pattern is seen either as satire or scandal. Coming out of the Christmas holiday, where a yearly fabricated “war” over Christian celebrations continues to garner press, it can be easy to forget the millions of individuals who fall outside the Christian paradigm, and how we exist, worship, and compromise in a culture that alternately enforces a Christian culture while claiming that culture in under constant threat. For example, CNN looks at how “other faiths” celebrate Christmas (aka December 25th for anyone who isn’t a Christian).

“Sometimes in the West these days there’s a kind of tendency to clump all the religions together and say, ‘We’re all climbing the same mountain,’ and I think the intention there is nice. There’s a harmonious intention there. But I think it’s much nicer to say, ‘Let’s respect the differences and love and appreciate the differences of the other faiths,” [Buddhist monk Ajhan] Yatiko said.

Meanwhile, at RealClearReligion, columnist Jeffrey Weiss bemoans the “Xmas Borg” and discusses just how difficult it is to avoid wall-to-wall expressions of Christianity for two to three months out of every year.

“I defy Bill O’Reilly and his compadres to locate the smallest corner of our nation immune from the months-long drumbeat of Christmas stuff. For us, the holiday seems closer to Star Trek’s Borg Collective (“Resistance is futile!”) than anything I can find in the Christian scriptures. To be Jewish (or Hindu, Bahai or Brama Kumari) in America requires some effort to wall out the overwhelming pressure of our national majority faith.”

The tendency to bundle non-Christian Winter holidays together and treat them like cultural add-ons to the Christmas juggernaut has started to find some dissenters, but most of us rationalize celebrating the holiday in the secular-religious hybrid that has now become the norm (particularly since most of us have Christian relatives and friends). Pagans perhaps have the best excuse, as many traditions and observances have their genesis with our religious ancestors, but we still exist in a culture where those elements: trees, gift-giving, various decorations and customs, are understood by most as function of a nominally Christian holiday, not some syncretic hybrid.

So long as Christianity remains the dominant religious force in our lives minority religions will have to hope that secular separations of church and state hold (or in the case of Mexico, progress), and that Christians of good conscience start to understand how their power works, and how that affects those who aren’t Christian.

“The most searching way to discover, recover, or practice one’s faith is to be a member of a religious minority–to live on a small island of Otherness in an archipelago of bigger religions or in the lake of a theocracy. The situation can be agreeable or dangerous. This is a truism for religious minorities, but it may surprise many in “Christian America.” Not everyone belts out Christmas carols.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber [...] Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture.”

The author of that piece, Professor Catharine Stimpson, was writing about being a Christian in the Islam-dominated United Arab Emirates, and how that perspective has shifted the way she sees all religious minorities. I think that her experience is important, and her testimony much-needed. Christianity has a historical and theological persecution narrative, which can unfortunately become something of a complex that distorts reality,  instead of calling its adherents towards a witness of tolerance and coexistence for all. All persecution narratives, even and especially our own, run the risk of becoming a toxic method of making people of different faiths or perspectives an inhuman “other.” Faceless villains who sport labels instead of human qualities, who become distorted monsters not to be trusted. The challenge for the formerly persecuted is to rise above their own persecution narratives, to build a future where none are persecuted, while it is the challenge of minorities to avoid enshrining them in the first place.

I hope that as this holiday season winds down we’ll all take a moment to consider the perspectives of others, and to critically think about the narratives we are participating in.