In the wake of the Black Mass controversy that unfolded at Harvard over the weekend, it may be time to re-evaluate what we think the First Amendment means about religion in theory and in practice.
When issues of religious freedom are addressed in the news, we tend primarily to hear about majority religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. There is an undercurrent of popular opinion by which time and familiarity make these religions more acceptable than less familiar practices. Up until the past several years, I’m not even certain I would have included Islam in the list of what the US considers “accepted majority religions” – and an argument could be made that it is still treated (at least in my country) as if it were some spiritual whippersnapper trying to muscle in like an unruly child to sit at the table with the adults. Legitimacy in a religious practice is equated, in most peoples’ minds, with tradition: the age and popular establishment of that faith.
Of course, this whole attitude breaks down when you realize that the majority of US citizens look upon Hinduism and Buddhism both as strange, fringe anomalies that are neither as valid nor as socially acceptable as monolithic Christianity. Never mind that both of these religious traditions are, in fact, older than Christianity.
How is this even possible? Ignorance of a faith seems to equate, at least in some peoples’ minds, to that faith being new and, therefore, strange. That’s hard even for me to wrap my brain around, and yet I’ve encountered the attitude again and again. Familiarity — and along with that, popularity (within one’s own cultural group) — become the measurement for legitimacy.
When most Christians – who tend to view themselves as the prime religion of validity within the United States – are still struggling to wrap their heads around Buddhism, Hinduism (and, let’s be honest – Islam) as valid religions, that leaves a huge number of other, equality valid traditions, out in the cold – from Sikhs to Pagans to our knee-jerk tradition of the week, Satanists.
And I can anticipate a response to that, because I’ve seen those responses written across my social media. Satanism isn’t a religion. It can’t be! It’s all about being anti-religious, so surely that doesn’t allow it to qualify under that hallowed First Amendment right — does it?
On a theoretical or spiritual level, we could argue over what defines a religion for days. However, it’s fairly simple to outline that definition in the grand US of A. So enamored of its forms and filing and making sure everyone is counted and in their place, the legal definition of a religion within the United States revolves around paperwork. You want a religion that allows you to worship the Disney Princesses as a modern pantheon of Goddesses? Get your hands on the appropriate paperwork and file it. If you submit the proper form, and it is accepted, your Disney Pantheon is a religious group, with all the rights and privileges there unto — from tax exempt status to the protection of your right to practice your sincerely held beliefs mandated by the First Amendment.
It sounds silly when I frame it around Disney Princesses, and yet, with the system we have in place, Disney-ism, if filed and recognized, would be just as legally valid a religion as Christianity, or Scientology, or LaVeyan Satanism, or The Universal Life Church. And in the end, whether we personally agree with the beliefs and practices of any of the religious groups listed above, if we are going to enact laws to protect the rights of one, those laws absolutely must protect the rights of all. If we truly want to support religious freedom in this country, we cannot allow the discourse to devolve to something from Orwell’s Animal Farm, where, out of one side of our mouths, we proudly state, “All religions are created equal!” and then, out of the other side, we add, “But some are more equal than others!”