These days, solidly under the reign of President Donald Trump and a new judiciary that he has helped shape, it can easily feel like the country is going rogue on our commitment to religious freedom for all.
We’ve heard Trump’s key spiritual adviser, televangelist Paula White, brag about dedicating the White House as a “holy ground” sanctified by the “superior blood of Jesus.” We’ve fought a Department of Labor proposed rule to allow federal contractors (private and nonprofit) claiming to be religiously based to fire anyone who doesn’t pass their religious litmus test. We’ve sued on behalf of nontheists excluded from delivering invocations in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and criticized the recent ruling from the federal appeals court allowing this unconstitutional practice to continue based on “tradition.”
These things and too many others tell us that we are living through a cultural and legal moment of constant assaults on the freedom of conscience our founders enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution.
In this context, I found great joy participating in a Sept. 6 panel discussion at the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C., following a showing of the hope-filled documentary “American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel.” Also on the panel were three individuals featured in the film: the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, a trailblazing progressive Unitarian minister; Bishop Carlton Pearson, a former leader in the conservative evangelical movement turned moral defender of equality for all, and Dr. Robby P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, an independent research organization at the intersection of religion, culture and public policy. Former Ambassador of International Religious Freedom Sujay Johnson Cook was the facilitator.
PHOTO: AU President and CEO Rachel Laser discusses "American Heretics" with Robby Jones, Bishop Carlton Pearson and the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar.
If films could preach, this one would be pounding its first on the pulpit proclaiming, red in the face, that the complexion of religion in America, even in Oklahoma, is changing. It shared the story of two congregations, Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ Church in Oklahoma City and All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, which are thriving not in spite of but because of their commitment to inclusion and equality both within their respective walls and throughout their state.
Lest you think that these two churches represent outliers in terms of change, Jones shared a recent survey that shows the religiously “unaffiliated” now outnumber white evangelicals in Oklahoma 28 percent to 23 percent!
You can imagine the fear this is engendering in many conservative white evangelicals, who historically (and still) hold great power. But this film showed that those who have not traditionally had a seat at the table are increasingly insisting that they get one – even in Oklahoma. One of many uplifting moments in the film was when the Rev. Lori Walke of Mayflower church, with a little help from her husband, state Rep. Collin Walke, a Democratic member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, succeeded at last in delivering an inclusive invocation before the state legislature.
In short, the film celebrated the continuing rise of a truly religiously pluralistic America. (To learn more, visit www.americanhereticsthefilm.com.)
It is our fundamental commitment to religious freedom that enables the rise of the religiously unaffiliated and the “conversion” of folks like Bishop Pearson. In fact, almost all of the clergy appearing in the film had altered their belief systems. Walke, for example, grew up evangelical Christian but joined the United Church of Christ after playing basketball in college with lesbian teammates.
James Madison once spoke of the importance of the “multiplicity of sects,” which, he said, “is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.” In other words, it’s bad for religious freedom when one religious sect gets too big and acquires too much power. “American Heretics” showcases that these changes in demographics are afoot in America, even deep in the Bible Belt.
To that I say, “Amen!”