Freedom of Religion in America

The freedom to believe, practice and preach any religion is an unalienable fundamental right, imperative to the maintenance of social cohesion. In the USA this principle has been protected by both the secular and the religious through legal guarantees and religious edicts; but periods in which humanity has enjoyed this ostensible luxury are rare. And the revival of modern Islamic Jihadism, which arguably began during the US backed liberation of Afghanistan by the Mujahedeen, has allowed an unscrupulous American press to constantly frame the topic of religious tolerance (or lack thereof) solely in terms of Muslim influence. This press bias means that it is more necessary than ever that proponents of freedom of religious practice take a stand against counterproductive prejudice.

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Religious liberty has been a central tenet of modern western civilisation since the ratification of the first amendment of the United States Constitution, which states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

However, these legal provisions did not prevent religious intolerance from pervading American society in the past. One prominent example of injustice is the persecution of the members of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) which began in the nineteenth century and which has continued to this very day, albeit in subtler form. Mormons of the past have been subjected to abhorrent acts of violence including the Haun’s Mill massacre, which saw the death of 20 civilian men and children. The fact that this bloody event was sanctioned by the Governor of Missouri in the infamous Missouri Executive Order 44 is particularly sinister, and provides damning evidence of the poor history of civil liberties in America.

Furthermore institutionalized discrimination is also deeply-rooted  in the USA, with long-lasting ramifications for the religious rights of minorities. One example of egregious institutional intolerance is the ‘Americanization’ of Native Americans  which took place in the 1920s, the effects of which are felt to this present day. The effort included the forcible transfer of over 100,000 Native American children to Indian boarding schools.  Students at these schools were prohibited from speaking the native Indian language and had Christianity imposed upon them. Indeed, they were forced to renounce all aspects of their tribal culture and religion. These schools were integral to the government’s “civilizing” process, such that once a student left, the only characteristic that separated him and the white man was skin color.

Another aspect to the Americanization effort was the vilification and in certain cases outright ban on traditional religious practices, most notably the Sun Dance. Before repealing the law in the 1980s, this ceremony had to undergo various changes to appease Christians and to ultimately survive, becoming a hollow shell of its former sacrosanct self. A more recent example of the government infringing on Native American religious rights is the Dakota Access Pipeline Project.  The pipeline threatens to desecrate sacred sites as well as pollute the Missouri river which most tribes are dependent upon.  Dogs, mace and inhumane incarceration conditions are all used to crackdown severely on peaceful protesters, of which most are Native American. The project, in its entirety, is a perfect microcosm of the gross disregard of Native American concerns throughout history.

Since 9/11, however, Islamophobic hate speech constitutes the single greatest threat to freedom of religious practice. Individuals such as Pastor Terry Jones espouse false anti-Islamic rhetoric, and utilize national media platforms to spread their hateful ideology with little resistance from the US government. Events organized by Terry Jones such as the annual Qu’ran Burning congregation, have resulted in an increase in the harassment of Muslims in the US. These provocations also inadvertently strengthen Jihadi recruitment programs, deepening the schism between Islam and the West.

America, a country self-described as the leader of the democratic free world, is steeped in unappreciation for the pluralistic nature of religion in society. Its continued apathy when addressing the grievances of religious minorities is worrying and the recent election of Donald Trump would seem to indicate that this unfortunate state of affairs may endure.

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