CULTURE WATCH: Religious Freedom (Part 1)

By Wendell Cantrell

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

Over the next four issues, Culture Watch will be looking at our right to religious freedom. You undoubtedly recognized the opening statement as the first phrase of the first amendment of our constitution. This amendment is arguably the most important part of the US Constitution. It not only guarantees the freedom of religion, but goes on to protect free speech, writing and publishing, peaceful assembly, and the freedom to raise grievances with the government.

We will first look at the idea of limiting free exercise of religion if US laws are being broken or if parishioners’ lives are being endangered. We will, in order, take a peek back into our recent religious history (130 years) at Mormon polygamy, snake handling, and the Jonestown massacre. Trust me, they are related.


The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, died in 1844. A massive exodus to the territories of Utah ensued. After the move to the Utah frontier an era of open polygamy began. Polygamy was regarded as a central tenet of the revelation to Joseph Smith and necessary for complete salvation. It was viewed as a divinely inspired concept by church members of both genders. Reformers back East began to have serious reservations concerning this affront to Protestant mores, calling polygamy one of the “twin relics of barbarism” (along with slavery). The Merrill anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, forbade the marrying of a second person while still being lawfully married. Mormons first ignored the law, believing that the revelations of God took precedence over laws of man. However the political pressure against polygamy increased during the remainder of the century and in 1890 the church president, Wilford Woodruff, produced a manifesto declaring that Mormons would give up plural marriage, allowing Utah to finally move toward statehood in 1896.


Snake handling in worship services came on the scene of American Christianity in 1910 in scattered charismatic churches in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Worship services usually included singing, praying, speaking in tongues, preaching, and the handling of snakes. Behind the pulpit would be wire cages for the rattlesnakes, copperheads, or cottonmouths. At times during the service, believers could come to the front and pick up the snakes, raise them into the air and allow them to crawl on their bodies. The snakes were considered incarnations of demons and handling them was a demonstration of your power over them. To their credit, the members were not required to handle snakes. One Sunday evening in the mid 60s, the county sheriff showed up at Rev. “Punkin” Brown’s Rock House Holiness Church. He had come to remove the snakes, enforcing the state law that limits freedom of religion when lives of worshippers could be endangered. Ironically Pastor Brown died in 1998 after being bitten by a rattlesnake himself.


The “crazy 70s” brings us the last instance of reckless use of religious freedom. The Rev. Jim Jones was leading the Peoples Temple in California with upward of 8000 congregants. Space doesn’t allow us to elaborate on the weird features of this cult. Due to intense criticism, Jones moved the cult to Guyana in South America. Then on Nov. 18, 1978 over 900 people died in a mass suicide. Just days before this egregious event, the “county sheriff” showed up again. In this case it was Leo Ryan, a US congressman representing most of the cult members. He affirmed, “These folks have the right to practice whatever weird religion they want. But there are some limits.” (The emphasis is mine.) You may remember that this courageous congressman and several members of his investigative team were murdered on this visit to Jonestown. The impact of this event is amazing. Not only do we see the massive loss of innocent lives, we also see the first and only known case of a congressman being assassinated while exploring how far First Amendment guarantees of religion should extend.


It seems that in the past we have made room within this great freedom (of religion) for “good ole common sense.” We have seen fit to limit religious rights of polygamists, snake handlers, and weird cults. Later in this series, we will examine the wisdom of calling in the “county sheriff” to ask a few questions concerning freedom of religion in the Muslim context.


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