Freedom From Foolishness?: Texas Gov. Misconstrues Religious Liberty
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 12:10:20 PM EST

Whenever I hear someone - especially a politician - say that the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, I just want to start screaming.

As I've pointed out many times on this blog and in other forums, that statement is inane and shows great ignorance of our founding principles. Religious Right figures started using it a few years ago, apparently believing they had stumbled onto something clever. In fact, they are simply spouting puerile nonsense.

The latest offender is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. While signing legislation guaranteeing people's right to say "Merry Christmas" (which is, in itself, an incredibly silly bill), Perry popped off, "I'm proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state. Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion."

Actually, Gov. Perry, it does. People who were a lot smarter than you - Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to name a few - understood this. You see, religious freedom must, by its very nature, include the right to reject all religion or else it isn't really religious freedom.

Jefferson put it well in an autobiographical fragment he once wrote. He was reflecting back to the time when the Virginia legislature passed his pioneering Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson's bill guaranteed to all the right to make up their own minds about religion.

It reads in part that no one "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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Note that the statute doesn't say that you're free to choose whatever religion you want. It says the state will not harass you on account of your religion opinions - and these may include the right to reject all faiths.

Jefferson was in France when the legislature debated his bill. His close associate Madison shepherded the bill through the Virginia General Assembly. After it passed, Madison wrote to Jefferson to tell him the good news. Madison noted that some legislators tried to limit the bill's protections to Christians only, but that this was rejected.

Jefferson rejoiced.

He wrote, "The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."

Unlike Perry, Jefferson understood that for freedom of conscience to be meaningful, it has to encompass the infidels too.

Consider this as well: Under the right conditions, we all want freedom from religion - or at least freedom from certain religions. A Methodist is not a Muslim for a reason. If the public school system or some other arm of government began imposing Islam, Scientology, Zoroastrianism (or even liberal Christianity) onto people against their will, I'd expect Gov. Perry and his followers would immediately demand to be free from that religion.

The separation of church and state protects us from fundamentalist zealots who'd like nothing better than to be able to use government power to shove their narrow version of religion down our throats. They can't. That sure sounds like freedom from religion to me.

Despite the efforts of Perry and his theocratic brigades, this is still a free country when it comes to religion. You're free to spread your faith (on your own dime and with your own resources), and someone else is free to tell you that you're all wet and they wouldn't consider joining your faith under any circumstances.

That's freedom of and from religion in action.

Perry and his pals would like Americans to think that we must choose between "freedom of" and "freedom from" religion. That's nonsense. Those two concepts complement one another and do not fight.

We can have both. We must have both. We do have both. It's the only way we can remain truly free.

should also include the right to freedom from proselytizing - at least, areas where proselytizing is not allowed.  I've heard and read statements from dominionists who claimed that we didn't even have the right to "not hear the good news" - that their freedom of religion included the "freedom" to force it on everyone else.  

Freedom from religion also means having space to be free of their constant pressure to convert others.

We should be able to live our lives in peace, without some jackass telling us we're going to hell because we don't "obey deh LARD!" every time we go into public, or have some offensive message demanding that we convert to their religion thrust in our faces.

by ArchaeoBob on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 12:59:50 PM EST

I do not begrudge proselytizers for doing what they believe is vital for others to hear. I cringe when I see some stating that they shouldn't have to hear it, ever.

As ArchaeoBob says, however, when practicing their beliefs involves speechifying to a captured audience, that is unacceptable. I also agree wholeheartedly that the asinine assertion of "freedom of...not freedom from..." is complete malarkey and theocracy is bold letters. I detest the thought behind it, and the hypocrisy of those Christians that cry out that they remain "humble" before their Lord, yet have no problem braying out on how certain they are that their religious beliefs are the only true Christian/religious sect, and all the answers to the myriad questions concerning humanity are already spelled out for us, if only we would read the bible/koran/torah/etc. with the special thesaurus that they use.

I am so disheartened to see the vast gulf separating Christian fundamentalist ideologues from those believers that take from the same bible an almost exact opposite viewpoint; peace vs war; sheltering the poor vs exalting the wealthy; welcoming all as brothers/sisters vs "Us vs Them". I wish I knew how to break this fever before it becomes a pandemic. Just letting it run its course does not sound very good for the patient nor the others suffering different maladies.

by trog69 on Sat Jun 15, 2013 at 05:10:12 AM EST
BUT, what they consider fine isn't to me.

My front yard is not fine, and insisting that I have to hear their message is not fine (when I tell them to shut up and leave, I insist that they do so immediately).  I put up a "No Trespassing" sign and we still get them every once in a while - they claim they didn't see it even though it's right beside our driveway.

I should add that practicing "Christian Sorcery" (coating their hands with oil and sneaking on our property to "anoint" our cars, home, or whatever - and praying for harm and misery for us) is also not fine.  I've caught them in the act.

Yelling at young adults (at school) while they're trying to eat their lunch in peace OR walking between classes, and telling them they're going to hell because of a laundry list of "sins" (including such things as learning about evolution, or equal rights, or about other cultures, or the scientific examination of sexuality and gender, or even for speaking to your pet besides giving it commands) or calling the young ladies whores and sluts for wearing shorts in the Florida summer (got in the school newspaper for that one), or getting blasphemous and hateful towards young Muslim women... none of that fits in the "fine" category as far as I'm concerned (ditto for most of the people on campus).  (The police try to keep a "hands off" approach when it comes to preaching, because the preachers are just waiting to involve the school in a first amendment lawsuit.)

Using an amplifier and powerful speaker on the street corner so that their hateful spew cuts through the music I'm trying to enjoy while riding in the car... that's not fine (I'm glad I have a rather powerful stereo, but they've gotten so loud that one local preacher was arrested for disturbing the peace!).

Captive audiences are especially not fine (that can be written in stone)... and I've helped block that a few times (the most aggravating was in a hurricane shelter... the local AoG church DEMANDED the right to hold a "service" where the people were sheltering... we offered them a side room away from the rest but they insisted on their right to preach at the people taking shelter...  it ended up they were told to leave because they became so obnoxious and insistent - with a hurricane threatening).

You can see some of those preachers in action if you look up "USF Preacher" on YouTube - and they seem to be spreading in their area.  I avoid certain areas of the campus because the preachers are allowed to rant there.  Some of the young people find it entertaining, but most (like me) wish they'd shut up and leave us alone... we have enough on our minds already.

The preacher who was arrested for disturbing the peace also made the news.  Right now I don't have a link for that.  Finding it should be easy.

If they want to preach in their churches, or put signs up on their church marquees, or even preach on the street corners (as long as it doesn't interfere in what I'm doing or listening to), then they can knock themselves out.  I insist that they keep it out of my face, and stop trying to force it down our throats!

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Jun 15, 2013 at 01:14:58 PM EST

I agree with you, Bob.  I live in an area where we get proselytizers of one type of another about once a week (or more often, during good weather).  I really don't like to be rude to people, but in addition to not wanting to hear their messages, I work out of my home, and it's a pain to answer the door to people who want to "convert" me.

I honestly think this has more to do with them -- sending people out to proselytize is a good way to exert control over the proselytizers and harden their resolve once they see how "wicked" the rest of us are.   I wonder how many people they actually convert?  Perhaps they entice a few who are in the midst of some emotional crisis to visit their congregations -- because what else do they need than MORE emotionally damaged and/or unstable people?

I have learned, however, that they are afraid of bees, wasps, etc.  Last year, I was treated to the delightful spectacle of watching Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and various Bible groups hesitating a few feet from my front door, suspiciously eyeing several big wasp nests.  Happily, they invariably turned away, not want to deal with Satan's Stingers (or whatever).   After a time, word got around and I was left alone.

The wasps never bothered me, but they did make some of my friend nervous, so I have prevented them from nesting next to the front door this year.  I have hung a sign stating "Careful!  Mind the Bees" near the door and this has kept the number of interruptions down.  Some fearless Jehovah's Witnesses have stuff a few flyers in my door (about 6 in the last month), but they haven't rung the bell.

by coralsea on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 04:27:42 PM EST

of God, the preachers taught us that if we didn't "bear fruit", we would be "cut off from the vine and thrown into the fire" - and then we'd catch a little preaching on hell.

"Bearing fruit" translated into "winning converts" (you could also get away with giving large sums of money).  Yeah, it put a hell of a lot of pressure on us... and they kept us terrified of being thrown "out into the darkness".  Since winning converts was an unusual occurrence (most people were unsuccessful), we were kept in a state of fear.

We were also responsible for a full tithe, plus offerings and "love gifts" and so on... and if you gave half of your paycheck to the church, it still wasn't enough.  We heard quite a few sermons on "stealing from God".  Control was central to their religion.

Oh... and a dominionist church elder once told me (in response to my saying it was wrong to preach sermons against living people): "How then will we keep people under control?"

I won't tolerate wasps anywhere near my home (experience as a baby leaves me terrified of them)... but that was a good idea.  

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Jun 15, 2013 at 01:40:53 PM EST

I just returned home after spending two hours as a Silent Witness Peacekeeper at the Lancaster, PA, Pride Fest. For the first couple of years we had flocks of street preachers harassing the festival attendees. Last year and this year there have been none in sight. Our directors say that our goals are 1. no arrests, and 2. work ourselves out of a job. So far our record is 100% on the first after about eight or nine years of standing witness at Pride Festivals, parades, film showings, etc.; and the number of street preachers at most venues where we work has diminished substantially in that time.

We do nothing to stop the preaching. Instead we do not engage with the preachers, and encourage festival goers not to engage. We are a welcoming and protective barrier. And in general we can keep the preachers contained in a fairly small area because rarely will they pay to get in to the festival itself. Harrisburg has been a problem in the past because River Front Park is long and narrow, and some of the preachers have brought bullhorns and set up on the public thoroughfare just opposite the line of Port-a-Potties. Talk about captive audience! In a situation like that it is difficult to keep the festival goers from leaving the park and confronting the preachers.

The fact that fewer and fewer preachers are showing up when we are on duty seems to support the idea that what they really want is attention, even if it is negative attention in the form of confrontation. If everyone ignores them, most seem to give up and go away over time.

As we were handing in our umbrellas and vests this afternoon, we were advised that we have been asked to work at a new festival just over the border in Maryland. Apparently some of the preachers are using Craig's List to organize a large contingent.

They may think that they are following the Great Commission with what they are doing, but I believe that we in Silent Witness are the ones who are really living out the gospel message of welcome, care for neighbor, and good will to all.

Here's the website for anyone interested in learning more about this kind of work. Silent Witness PA

by MLouise on Sat Jun 15, 2013 at 04:34:23 PM EST
but I believe that we in Silent Witness are the ones who are really living out the gospel message of welcome, care for neighbor, and good will to all.

If you're preaching or talking, you're not listening... and if you're not listening, you're not helping or showing respect for the Other.

I'll add another post about dealing with them later... gotta run.

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Jun 16, 2013 at 12:40:27 PM EST

I've found that in a sense they're a lot like corporate bullies ( ) and at least at our school, ignoring them doesn't do a bit of good.  I think you were lucky in that they stopped harassing.  They may be back.

In my opinion, the best way to drive them off is to find some sort of leverage and shame them out - make them realize how bad they appear in other people's eyes (ridicule and parody is IMO the most effective, but there are other things that work).  My wife has successfully driven them off a couple of times.  In one case, the preacher was ranting directly at a young lady, who was in tears.  My wife walked up to him and just looked him in the eyes... she said he turned white as a sheet, looked down, packed up his junk, and almost fled the scene.  In the second time the preacher was getting really nasty towards the Muslim girls walking around (to and from classes for instance) and so she started chanting something on the order of "Calvinist Racist Bigot Pig!"...  the other students joined in... the preacher tried to shout over the students, then got an abashed look on his face, shut up... and left.

Making them realize how out of order they are also works well.

They think they're being effective at some level... and from the things we were taught in my AoG days, even silence was considered a positive sign (encouraging you to try harder).  We were taught that even if a person was trying to ignore you, the "Gospel" was going in and convicting them - so we were to keep trying.  When they're embarrassed or their arguments are shot down through using their own words (and from quotes from the Bible) and they become confused, then they also tend to retreat.  (They do tend to catch a few students who are going through a rough time... and hook them.  They win enough "converts" that way to think they're actually "bearing fruit".  Of course, they're just harming those who need help.)

We need to start calling them every time they do something stupid and wrong.  The fact is, dominionists and fundamentalists of all stripes are at heart bullies and the dominionist ideology is a form of bullying... and ignoring a bully is about the biggest fail you can do, especially at the individual level.  It only encourages them to try harder and in adult years, gives them power.  (Unstopped childhood bullying turns into corporate bullying in adulthood... and the link I posted gives a good argument why ignoring bullies is a bad idea.)

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Jun 16, 2013 at 07:07:22 PM EST

There are different rules that apply regarding free speech rights when the event is being held on public property ~ usually a city or county park ~ as opposed to a school campus or one's own home. Generally there is security in the form of local police watching the festival, and they don't ask who started it or what the theological issues are if a confrontation escalates. There were two mounted patrolmen at the event on Saturday, plus private security walking the perimeter with walkie-talkies. They all know who we are and that our purpose is to prevent disturbances.

Some of the preachers deliberately try to provoke a confrontation so that they can scream that they are being attacked and their free speech rights are being taken away. That's how Westboro Baptist funds all their efforts, for example ~ by suing anyone who makes a threatening gesture toward them. And they win. I understand what you mean that bullies should not simply be ignored, but they have to be confronted by someone with the authority and power to do so. Otherwise, the best tactic really is to ignore them, let them rant, and go on with the Pride festival.

by MLouise on Sun Jun 16, 2013 at 09:57:41 PM EST

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