Religious Freedom and “Deviant” Religious Groups

The Sunday before Thanksgiving was my 64th birthday.

It was also the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Every five years or so, the events of my birthday and Jonestown become as inextricably linked as they were when I turned 24. Then a recent college graduate in my first semester of graduate school in sociology with a keen interest in religion, Jonestown shook me to my core.

Looking back with the vantage point of history, it’s easy to identify Jim Jones as a cult leader. We know that this group didn’t fit our normal visions of religious expression. After all, the followers committed mass suicide by drinking tainted kool-aid. (It’s a remarkable thing that “drinking the kool-aid” has become part of our lexicon given its macabre origins.)

Jim Jones

But Jim Jones began his ministry in a Methodist church on the Southside of my hometown of Indianapolis. It is true that his views tended to liberal politics as he referred to himself as a socialist and communist.

 

Those views, however much out of the mainstream, are protected by the first amendment to the constitution. I am by no means trying to excuse what happened in Guyana and many books have been written on how Jones’ sense of paranoia led to increasingly aberrant behavior. But that feeling that “they” were out to get him should provide warnings to those who traffic in stoking perceptions of religious discrimination.

I’ve been listening to Ruth Graham’s excellent podcast Standoff exploring the Ruby Ridge standoff between the FBI and Randy Weaver. The first episode details how the Weavers were influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ – Christian, a group that infused Aryan white supremacist views into apocalyptic scriptural passages. The ATF did go after Randy Weaver because of illegal arms sales (likely involving entrapment), but the precursor for the standoff is related to their religious beliefs. When the powers of the federal government get involved, killing Randy’s wife and son, it serves as a reinforcement of that belief system.

Back in August I attended the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. One session looked back at the 25th anniversary of the Branch Davidian Conflict in Waco, TX. The three panelists were all involved in either the actual standoff or in explorations immediately after the fact. Waco follows a similar pattern to the other two events. A set of beliefs, admittedly obscure and not broadly shared, led the group to pull together. Federal officials act on poor information and try to intervene, leading to a standoff that ends tragically.

This past weekend, Franklin Graham explained that white evangelicals like him support President Trump because he “defends the Christian faith:”

He also insisted his allegiance was not automatically for the Republican Party, stating that he backs politicians that “support the Christian faith whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Politicians that are going to guarantee my freedom of worship. And I appreciate the president has appointed now two conservative judges that are going to defend religious freedom, so amen to that.”

Herein lies the constitutional problem. The first amendment doesn’t call for the defense of the Christian faith. It calls for the protection of free expression of religion and opposes the official establishment of any particular religious group.

A key moment in religious freedom jurisprudence occurred in 1944 in United States v. Ballard. The Ballards were a husband and wife team that set up a church as a means to collect money, raising over $3 million. The lower court argued that the Ballards didn’t really hold a good faith belief in what they were espousing and got a fraud conviction. This was overturned on appeal in the US Court of Appeals. The state of California appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court. By a decision of 5-4, the Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court. Justice William Douglas, writing the majority opinion, argued:

The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain. The First Amendment does not select any one group or any one type of religion for preferred treatment. It puts them all in that position.

This is the birth of the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs”. The Supreme Court refused to put itself in the position of “finding truth or falsity”. It is worth noting that none of the dissenters were willing to take up the “truth” question either. Three of the justices argued that illegal actions could not be masked under religious beliefs. The remaining justice, Robert Jackson, saw any enforcement of law over religion as problematic and raised potential for religious persecution. He then challenged the notion of sincerity:

If religious liberty includes, as it must, the right to communicate such experiences to others, it seems to me an impossible task for juries to separate fancied ones from real ones, dreams from happenings, and hallucinations from true clairvoyance. Such experiences, like some tones and colors, have existence for one, but none at all for another. They cannot be verified to the minds of those whose field of consciousness does not include religious insight. When one comes to trial which turns on any aspect of religious belief or representation, unbelievers among his judges are likely not to understand, and are almost certain not to believe, him.

This brings me back to Jim Jones, Randy Weaver, and David Koresh. It is difficult for those outside the religious group to evaluate the sincerity of the belief system involved. That’s why other laws are the means of enforcement. It is a matter of attempting to separate the religious beliefs from the expectations of shared adherence to laws.

So the Masterpiece Cakeshop and Hobby Lobby decisions represent the conflict that arises between shared legal standards and closely held religious beliefs. Following Ballard, the court has tended to side with the religious beliefs because it has no lever with which to do anything else.

But it is vitally important to remember that religious freedom does not work as a particularized right. It is as relevant to evangelical Christians as it is to White separatists, to communal apocalyptic groups, to Pastafarians, and to those with no faith whatsoever.

My very first publication was a 1980 book review of James Richardson’s Conversion Careers: In and Out of  the New Religious Movements. As i remember the book, the takeaway was the thing that separated these “deviant” religious groups from established religious groups revolved around the social acceptance denied them.  When one’s group is seen as outside the mainstream, it’s harder for people to understand them as a legitimate religious group.

That may be true sociologically but it remains an open question for a Supreme Court that simultaneously upholds religious expression while avoiding questions of validity.

 

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