Religious Freedom and Values

Religious freedom has been a hot topic in the news. Last week the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, let go his Fire Chief, Kelvin Cochran, for distributing copies of a Christian book that attacked homosexuality. Cochran defended his behavior in a statement released by the Alliance Defending Freedom, asking "What could be more intolerant...than ending a public servant's...years of distinguished service for his religious beliefs?"

Last year, Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma based corporation with 13,000 employees, argued that the ACA violated their faith by forcing them to provide some contraceptives. The U. S. Supreme Court upheld their suit, Justice Samuel Alito writing that the health mandate represented a substantial burden on the company. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty had recruited Hobby Lobby to make this test, and protestors outside the Court held up signs reading, "Stand Up for Religious Freedom".

Debate has centered on the constitutionality issues, but there is a far larger issue here. What happens when religion violates fundamental American values? Is it possible to use deeply held beliefs in an organized religion to supersede custom or law?

A case in point is the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Of the three manifestations of the Klan (Reconstruction, 1920s, Civil Rights Era) this was by far the largest, national rather than Southern in scope (Indiana had the largest Klan population), with membership in the millions rather than the thousands. Yet, as Kelly Baker, author of "Gospel According to the Klan" pointed out, "Faith was an integral part of that incarnation of the order....The Klan...was not just an order to defend America but also a campaign to protect and celebrate Protestantism. It was a religious order."

Much of the Klan's teachings were couched in religious terms. In his 1925 message to members, Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans called "upon the Klansmen of America for whole-hearted, united...service to the cause of Protestant Christianity....make this a year of Christian devotion and high service." Another Klan reading, The Night-Hawk, stated bluntly that "one of the foremost duties of a Klansman was to worship God."

Religion manifested itself in many of the Klan's fundamental beliefs. Racial superiority was linked to the domain of the Lord. Williams Simmons, who founded the KKK, felt his organization's mission was the "preservation of the white Protestant race in America," while another Klan writer was even blunter, telling his readers, "Christianity was born of the white race...." In the Kloran, the constitution of the KKK, the Klansmen's Creed began, "I believe in God and in the tenets of Christian religion....", yet a later credo read, "I am a native born American citizen and I believe my rights in this country are superior to those of foreigners." A subsequent revision claimed that "the distinction between the races of mankind...has been decreed by the Creator...." A Klan pamphlet explained that "the distinction made by the Creator between the races of men" meant that Klansmen were "pledged to forever strive to keep the Caucasian blood pure and undefiled." As an example of Divine Will, he pointed out that "God did not create a mule or a yellow negro. They are products of men's sin and shame."

The Klan also employed the Bible to defend gender hierarchy. In the 1924 volume "American Women", the author felt that relations between the sexes was determined in the Garden of Eden, where God created Eve as Adam's "comrade and counselor", while Adam stood fast as her "lord and husband."

Other writings used religion to condemn religions and ethnic groups. A Klan publication, The Kourier, discussed the "millions of people who look to a human intermediary for their salvation more than they look to Almighty God. This is insidious priestcraft and tantamount to spiritual slavery." Hiram Evans believed there were four races out to destroy America--Jews, Celts, Mediterranean peoples and Alpines--because of their different religions, Judaism or Roman Catholicism. The Klan felt Catholic teachings that offspring of mixed marriages must be raised in the Church of Rome meant "religious control of minds yet unborn." To fight this, members must "plead for the enactment of laws to protect the religious liberty of unborn Americans."

Several clarifiers are necessary here. Freedom of speech doctrine permits even hate speech. In the twenties there were no civil rights laws in effect. And the KKK enacted its views by violent means. Yet Klan doctrine based on heartfelt belief in Scripture still raises a basic question: how far should we go in defending religious freedom when some claims contradict other principles and statutes?