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A Secular Nation: Religious Intolerance, Religious Freedom, And The (Dis)Establishment Of Religion (REL200)

A glimpse at the secular nature of the United States (REL200 Final)

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Since you've taken the time to click this post, I'm assuming you're here to learn something about secularism.

Or you're my mom trying to figure out what her son is studying at college.


She gave me an A just for being her son.

But I don't want to just tell you a bunch of stuff about secularism. I want to have a conversation with you about secularism.

And yes, I'm aware you can't talk to a Buzzfeed post, so I've taken the liberty of filling in your dialogue for you. All you have to do is read aloud anything that comes between 2 asterisks.

*Do you mean like this*

Yes. I can hear you loud and clear. Now that we're through all this secular red tape, let's get started!

Buckle up! You're about to learn a whole lot.


The first thing we're going to do is talk about Tolerance

*Slow your roll, Liam. I have no idea what that is*

Well, you aren't alone. As a nation, we’ve done a pretty sore job thus far of defining and respecting religious equality. First, let’s define what exactly we are talking about (and what we should be talking about).

To many, the idea of acknowledging and respecting the faiths of others is known as ‘religious tolerance.’ But if we dive into the specifics, the word ‘tolerance’ doesn’t really belong here. What we’re actually looking for is religious equality.

According to Pellegrini and Jakobsen in their book ‘Love the Sin,’ the word tolerance is actually working against the goal of equality.

“Tolerance doesn’t really fight the problem of hatred; it maintains the very structure of hierarchy and discrimination on which hatred is based.” Pellegrini and Jakobsen also state the reason for this is because the word tolerance sets up an us-them relationship in which ‘we’ tolerate ‘them.’


*WAIT! So I’ve been fanning the flames of inequality by condoning tolerance?*

Not exactly.

In Corrigan and Neal’s ‘Narratives about Religious Intolerance,’ we can learn a lot about what tolerance (or our nation’s lack thereof) has looked like as our nation has grown. Corrigan and Neal, in their narratives, tell us

“Americans continued to recall how there had been intolerance in the colonial period, but they had a harder time seeing it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Americans’ trust that a common morality bound the nation together, and their deep investment in the capability of law to transform life, shaped their thinking about the meaning of religious differences. When events conflicted with the belief that America had been made anew, Americans were often unable to see that minority groups suffered at the hands of minority traditions."

*Okay, that was nice. But, quick question: What does any of that mean?*

This basically means our ideas of tolerance have changed as our nation developed. Our constitution created a secular nation, but when our nation started ACTUALLY becoming secular, that became a little bit scary for the complacent, law-making protestants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These protestants created the nation’s laws under the assumption that everyone had the same morals (morals that these protestants got from, you guessed it, their protestantism).


Thanks for clarifying, bud. Better luck at the next debates.

*Are you implying that our nation’s laws have Protestant foundations?*

That’s exactly what I’m implying. However, it’s hard to discuss the protestant foundations of our nation and religious intolerance without also addressing Religious Freedom’s storied past in our nation.

*Another definition? Am I gonna learn a lot from this?*


Hopefully! The other ugly head of this two headed dragon is Religious Freedom. In Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s 3rd chapter in the book “The Politics of Religious Freedom,” she explains a lot of our world’s working understanding of religious freedom. “Religious freedom advocacy is often described as supporting a right to choose one’s religion or belief. Although religious practice is also considered, belief is understood to be the central and defining feature of religiosity. The implication is that there can be no religion without belief.”

*Okay great! So we can all believe whatever we choose to and peacefully respect one another! Thanks Hurd!*

You should know by now that’s not how this works.


Winnifred Sullivan, another contributor to the aforementioned book “The Politics of Religious Freedom” stated the distinction between types of Religion and Religiosity in her article “The Impossibility of Religious Freedom”

“Human history supports the idea that religion, small ‘r’ religion, is a nearly ubiquitous and perhaps necessary part of human culture. Big ‘R’ Religion, on the other hand, the [type of] Religion that is protected in not. Big ‘R’ Religion is a modern invention, an invention designed to separate good religion from bad religion, orthodoxy from heresy--an invention whose legal and political use has arguably reached the end of its useful life.”

*Okay, that was a lot of words and you lost me. I kinda understand the definition, but I can’t imagine what that looks like*

Well, (un)lucky for you, there’s plenty of historical examples of religious intolerance and its pesky place in our society.

For our first historical example, we have to travel back to a scary, scary place and time: America in the Mid 1800’s.


*What’s so scary about mid 1800’s America other than slavery, misogyny, and the patriarchy?*

I’m glad you asked! Well, there’s one thing that Religious Conservatives found to be just as scary...




YES! THEM! You see, the Mormon religion is what we’d refer to as a minority religion (or a religion that doesn’t quite fit the ‘Big R’ Religion bill). The average religious person of the day was a Protestant (our ‘Big R’ champion).

As a society, Mid-1800’s America had a pretty good idea of what marriage should look like: one man and one woman (which looked a lot like protestant’s idea of marriage; more on this traditional marriage idea to come). When the Mormons came along with their radical new polygamy idea, people were freaked out. According to Sarah Gordon’s book “The Mormon Question,” Mormons were harassed, tarred and feathered, slaughtered, and on top of all that, were not protected by our nation’s laws. The Mormons, who deeply admired the constitution, were shocked to find the First Amendment did not protect their ‘free exercise’ of religion to the extent that they could practice polygamy. They lost their supreme court case (which you can read about here) to defend their right to free exercise. The SCOTUS decided that ‘free exercise’ only protected belief, and that the Mormons could not use a religious doctrine to go above federal legislation (which outlawed Polygamous Marriage).

*Oh. That kinda stinks for the Mormons. Do minority religions get marginalized by the protestant foundations of our laws a lot?*

You bet. Let’s jump back in our time machine and jump forward to the dawn of a new era: the 1990’s. George HW Bush was our president, grunge music was making it’s way into our lives, and, oh yeah, another minority religion was being marginalized by the United States judicial system.


The day is April 17th, 1990. The SCOTUS has just made a decision in Employment Division v Smith.


Alfred Smith and Galen Black, two Native Americans, were fired from their jobs after ingesting the hallucinogenic peyote in a religious ceremony. Upon filing for unemployment, the two were denied any benefits because they were fired for ‘misconduct’ in the workplace.

*But the free exercise clause of the first amendment protects their right to exercise their religion, right?*

There lies the problem. Although the right to free exercise is protected by the constitution, the secular nature of our nation leads us to hold federal and state laws above any religious doctrine (the same issue the Mormon’s of the nineteenth century faced). Winnifred Sullivan explains further how this ruling impacted in our nation in “The Politics of Religious Freedom.”

"The Smith Decision was broadly received by religious conservatives in the United States as effectively and finally revealing the implacable hostility of the federal government toward religion. But, much more important, the coalition of more than sixty religious groups--who quickly and successfully lobbied congress to overrule Smith with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993--included both liberals and conservatives."

*Oh that’s awesome! So Smith and Black were okay?*

Well, the RFRA wasn’t passed until 1993, so unfortunately, this didn’t do much for them at the time of their case. Let’s make good use of this time machine while we have it and jump forward one last time to talk about the RFRA.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by the 103rd congress of the United States, was intended to protect the religious rights of our nation’s citizens.

The main point driven home by the Act is seen in Section 2, Paragraph 2, which states “laws ‘neutral’ toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise”

*I’m not a legislator. What does this mean*


Well, in the first Amendment, our founding fathers stated that “congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”

This means our nation cannot make a law that interferes with any one person or religion’s right to believe and exercise freely. Herein, The RFRA effectively enhances this clause by stating that neutral laws (laws that have nothing to do with religion) may in some ways burden religious exercise as much as laws that would interfere directly with religious exercise and belief.

This added protection, while great in theory, has brought about a lot of religious inequalities. Let’s take a look at the significance of this act, and the significance of (in)tolerance in the grand scheme of our nation.


The Religious Freedom Restoration Act had a big moment in the spotlight in the Supreme Court case Burwell v Hobby Lobby. After the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare), it was federally mandated that employment-based group health care plans cover contraception.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act had a big moment in the spotlight in the Supreme Court case Burwell v Hobby Lobby. After the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare), it was federally mandated that employment-based group health care plans cover contraception. Hobby Lobby, a chain craft supply store, had an issue with this mandate. The Green family, Hobby Lobby’s owners, didn’t want to provide certain types of contraceptives to its employees because of their belief that life starts at conception. Their idea was, by being forced to provide contraceptives to employees (contraceptives that the Green Family considered abortifacients), the federal government had created a (supposedly neutral) law that burdened their religious beliefs. Like the Mormons of the nineteenth century and the Native Americans of two decades prior, they took their case to court. Much like the Mormons and the Native Americans before them, Hobby Lobby was also seeking exemption from federal law based on their religious belief. The Mormons, as we remember, lost. Smith, as we remember, lost. Hobby Lobby however, had a secret weapon: The RFRA. Their fate?



*What? I don’t get it. All three groups sought exemption from federal law based on their religious beliefs, but here we have a new outcome. How did they win?*

Well, it's a lot more complex than that. You see, it all has to due with the substantiality of the burden placed upon the Green family. In Ruth Bader Ginsberg's dissent of the case, she argues her fellow justices mistook substantiality of burden with sincerity of belief (that belief being that contraception=abortions). You can read more about the decision here and how a large-scale for-profit corporation can be treated like a person here, but we have a ton more to talk about considering the significance of our laws in this secular nation.

*Great! I’ll look into that! I can’t believe there’s so many minority groups being marginalized based on religious differences*

Well, I hate to burst your already structurally precarious bubble, but there’s also lots of marginalizing of people based on their sexual orientation and race.



Yup. And much like our nation, faith has a lot to do with how it happens. Let’s look at Kim Davis, who you may remember as the Kentucky County Clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples after the supreme court ruled it was unconstitutional (and illegal) to refuse to do so. You can read more about her here. What’s significant about Kim Davis is that she cited her faith in (illegally) refusing to issue marriage licenses. The issue of religious freedom, as in her freedom to do as she sees fit based on her beliefs, is her main defense. If you recall Sullivan’s argument about religious freedom (if you don’t, scroll back up: I can wait), it’s impossible. This is plenty evident in the case of Kim Davis. In her assumption that we should respect her beliefs about ‘traditional marriage’ because of her religious freedom, she should be similarly respectful of the countless other religious beliefs that do accept the supreme court’s ruling.

*Wow. So, people use their faith and the defense of religious freedom to discriminate against the LGBTQ community*

Yup. Let’s look at another example. This time, we’ll travel even deeper south to a mysterious land called Florida. If you recall, on June 12 of this year, Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and carried out the largest hate crime/mass shooting perpetrated by a single person in US history. Victoria Massie discusses the tragedy in her Vox article (read it here). She stresses “The Pulse shooting was a direct attack on Orlando’s LGBTQ community, which is consistently targeted by some politicians of faith who claim religious freedom when writing, lobbying for, and passing anti-LGBTQ laws” She tackles the double standard of these politicians offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ after the event while simultaneously pursuing legislation to marginalize the community based on their own religious belief. As a double whammy, several politicians took this opportunity to capitalize on the tragedy and talk about the supposed threat of ‘radical Islam.’

*What’s that look like?*


Well, the idea of foreign and domestic terrorism is extremely frightening for a lot of people. Many people blame the Islamic faith for the brute of this threat based on a few examples of radicalized people committing acts of terrorism (for example, the current President Elect’s proposition to ban all Muslims from entering our nation). Another example, this time from a faith group, is John Wofford, pastor at the Armorel Baptist Church. In Sarah McCammon’s ‘All Things Considered’ for NPR, Wofford is quoted saying "I would like to know how in the world someone within the Southern Baptist Convention can support the defending of rights for Muslims to construct mosques in the United States when these people threaten our very way of existence as Christians and Americans?"

The idea that religious freedom and liberties should not extend past the complacent Christianity in our nation is unconstitutional. This is also a blatant crossing of the line dividing Church and State in our nation (the ‘politics’ of which you can read more about in McCammon’s article).

However, no matter how separate we attempt to keep these two entities, it will remain nearly impossible. So often, especially in times of injustice, religious congregations have taken to political empowerment and action. Take the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as an example.

During the civil rights movement, the church was paramount in the organizing and empowering of African-Americans for the cause. These political ‘powerhouses (of God)’ have threatened the complacency of the white man at the top of our societal hierarchy. It is for these reasons that institutions like these are also the target of attacks.

I’ll ask of you, one last time, to recall the events of June 17, 2015. Dylan Roof entered the AME church and joined a bible study session with the parishioners before firing and killing 9.

Roof, a known white supremacist, stated his motives were to incite a race war. This attack was not random. The church was a known source of empowerment to the black community.

One of the victims, Reverend Pinckney, was especially influential to the community. At his funeral, President Obama delivered the eulogy (which you can watch here). This eulogy, as beautiful and inspiring as it was, is yet another addition to the history of our nation’s relationship with small ‘r’ and big ‘r’ Religion.


Reverend POTUS's was too good a singer NOT to sing along with.

Overall, the secular nature of the United States of America has been challenged again and again by its citizens. Legislators, Supreme Court Justices, and politicians of all kinds have been trying to maintain the divide between church and state, but the disputes between religious conservatives over religious freedom, the paradox of religious tolerance, and the protestant foundations of our nation make it awfully hard to keep the two distant. With all these factors, it’s not a surprise we have a hard time maintaining our secular nation.

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