The Christians I know are very nice people, and quite accepting of a pluralistic religious culture in the United States. Indeed, I imagine that many or even most American Buddhists feel that their Christian neighbors respect their commitment to practicing the dharma. This reflects the long-standing American conception that religious freedom is freedom from being dominated by an officially sanctioned church. Our received tradition is that Puritan colonists left England in order to be free from the domination of the Church of England. And that legend defining freedom as freedom from domination has molded much of the understanding of religious freedom, and indeed of our freedoms more generally, in the United States.
Buddhists in the US might well then wonder whether they have anything to fear from the rise of Christian nationalism. The strength of the legend all too often obscures the other side of how freedom is understood—the freedom to dominate others. The same colonists who we regard as having fled the religious tyranny of England, in turn, tyrannized religious Others in their midst. Freedom to impose a single religious form was exercised against Quakers, for example. Considered heretics, Quakers were persecuted, imprisoned, and their property confiscated. Some were exiled, and others executed by the state. Freedom from having the will of others imposed upon oneself, did not mean abandoning the freedom to impose one’s will on others. Freedom from oppression and the freedom to oppress are the twin meanings of freedom in US history <link>.
To understand the potential for religious tyranny in the United States today, it would be valuable to consider India as it exists under the Hindu nationalism of Modi’s BJP party.
Last year Prime Minister Narendra Modi played a key role in setting the ceremonial cornerstone of a new temple in Ayodhya. <link> This may seem unexceptional, except that this new temple is located on the site of a Muslim mosque, the Babri Masjid, which dated from the early sixteenth century. That mosque was destroyed by a Hindu nationalist mob in 1992.
There had been a legal case regarding the mosque proceeding through the courts since the 1950s <link>. When the case reached India’s Supreme Court, the god Ram was given legal standing, and in November of 2019, the court decided that the land belonged to the government, not to the Muslim community.
More recently in India, various local jurisdictions have passed laws imposing vegetarianism, and police have attacked street vendors who sell cooked eggs <link>. Carts and equipment damaged or confiscated, and food stocks destroyed—all despite a contradictory governmental policy encouraging the production of eggs as an important source of protein, needed to avoid children’s malnutrition.
Also in Modi’s India, Christians are being terrorized by Hindu nationalists. <link> The danger of the relation between religious nationalism and state power is demonstrated by the actions of the police following an attack on Christians in Indore last January. The attackers physically assaulted both preachers and parishioners, but when the police arrived it was the victims who were arrested. The reason? A law that prohibits religious conversions—encouraging and justifying anti-Christian vigilantes who engage in this kind of religious violence across many parts of India.
The United States has its own history of religious violence, of course. An example is that against Mormons, which included the lynching of founder Joseph Smith in Illinois in 1844. The conflation of racism, nationalism, and religious intolerance is evident in the persecution of Chinese immigrants in Gold Rush era California. It was also part of the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during WWII. And today the anti-abortion laws being passed, such as those in Texas, depend on definitions of personhood grounded in Fundamentalist theology. And violence against abortion providers is given religious justification (Julie Ingersoll, “Religiously Motivated Violence in the Abortion Debate,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, Michael Jerryson, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Margo Kitts, eds., 315–323. Oxford University Press, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199759996.013.0020).
Religious violence as such has complex motivations (Matthew Rowley, “What Causes Religious Violence? Three Hundred Claimed Contributing Causes,” Journal of Religion and Violence, 2.3 (2014), 361–402). And, as with the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Palestine, religious affiliation is one part of a complex set of factors, such as economic, political, or racial, that result in violence. In American history, the Salem witch trials often were employed to deprive elderly widows not only of their lives, but also of the property desired by their neighbors (Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, Harvard University Press, 1974). However, religious commitment can become an aggravating factor and justification.
For the United States, consider the extent to which Christian Reconstructionists would go to impose their values on others. (Apologies for the extended quote.)
At the radical fringe of the Christian Right are those who espouse Christian Reconstructionism, dominion theology, and/or theonomy. The leaders of this movement disagree on some matters, but agree that Christians have a biblical mandate to reconstruct all aspects of society, beginning with the United States government. They proclaim a broad agenda from eliminating public schools, replacing government authority in many areas with religious authority, and enforcing Old Testament death penalty sanctions against homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, and other sins. Reconstructionists do not generally support religious tolerance or pluralism, and make it clear that non-Christians should not be involved in government. Indeed, some argue that only members of “biblically correct” churches should be allowed to vote. These views represent a small minority of the Christian Right, although the writings of authors in this tradition have been cited by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and other leaders. (Clyde Wilcox and Sam Potoliccho, “The Christian Right and Church-State Issues,” in The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States, Derek H. Davis, ed., 389, Oxford University Press, 387–403; DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195326246.003.0015)
There is nothing secure about our religious freedom. As the Founders knew, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” (Thomas Jefferson)