What is freedom of religion? It’s not actually the freedom to think or not think religious stuff. Rather, it is the right to display—or to refuse to display—religiosity.
If you have freedom of religion, as I think everyone should, and if we all have the right to our own lives and wellbeing, as I think we should, then as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you have the right to hold various things sacred: books, statues, symbols, buildings, trees, whatever. And everyone else has the right not to hold those things sacred.
In Saudi Arabia, if you don’t act as if you hold certain objects and words and behaviors sacred, your life is in jeopardy.
In the United States, what puts you at the greatest risk of unpleasant repercussions is not the practicing of any particular religion, with the possible exception of Islam or anything that people might mistake for Islam. What people who call the United States home are most compelled to engage in is this: flag worship.
Children who refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag, along with football players who refuse to participate in sacred rituals when the flag is being worshiped and the national anthem sung, may experience a wide range of unpleasant repercussions.
When I refuse to stand and cover my heart and face the flag, as I always have, I’m not burning the flag or spitting on the flag or pissing on the flag or screaming obscenities at people. I’m purely refraining from participating in a religious ceremony.
What makes it a religious ceremony? The fact that those who refrain from participating are excommunicated. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick can’t get a job because he sat down for and later took a knee when the national anthem was played before games, and now the president of the United States wants anyone who refrains as Kaepernick has to be fired for “disrespecting our flag.”
The US flag appears on Catholic altars in some states, as well as in other churches and sacred arenas. For some, the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals are equally sacred. But virtually nobody treats local or state or UN flags as sacred. It is exclusively the flag that accompanies a military that must be worshiped—a military that pays the National Football League millions of public dollars to perform pro-military ceremonies.
Of course, Kaepernick and others are protesting a racist judicial system. At least some of those players taking a knee will certainly tell you they love the flag (and the troops, and the wars). But those protesters’ willingness to protest racism by challenging flag worship is a step against racism and also a step for freedom of speech. Only it isn’t just that. It’s also that other freedom that comes first in the First Amendment, just before the freedom of speech.
Freedom of religion depends on the willingness to stand up for (or take a knee for) the right not to be compelled to worship.
Here where I live in Charlottesville, Virginia, Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews, and others got down on one knee for unity during a September 24th benefit concert, and then two knees—as they said—for prayer. I groaned. As an anti-racist atheist, I saw a symbol I liked transformed into one I find depressingly backward. But on second thought, I think this action had a point. These musicians were turning opposition to one religion into support for another. By adding a second knee, they were stepping from defiance of a nearly universal religion in the United States which the US government does a great deal to establish, to support for a widespread set of religions that have managed a great deal of mutual tolerance.
But Stevie and Dave never demanded or even asked the concert crowd to take a knee, or two, and never threatened repercussions against those who refrained. They were exercising perfect freedom of religion. Not everyone who ever comes near a microphone or a Twitter account does so.