These are tough questions, most significant when the consequences result in riots, political influence and prejudice. Is it fair to say that once religious beliefs leave the church and not only enter, but also attempt to influence, through one methodology or another, societal and political culture, that they are no longer protected as a sacred ideology? Several events have once again inspired this discourse, challenging ethical behavior, the separation of church and state and, most importantly, free speech.
The Muslim unrest over the sacred depiction of the prophet Muhammad hit home here in the United States when Borders and Waldenbooks stores refused to carry the popular secular magazine, Free Inquiry, which in its April/May 2006 issue illustrates four of the controversial cartoons. Borders Group Inc., cited safety for itself, its customers and its employees as reason to censor the magazine. Whether or not the portrayal of Muhammad in cartoons was of moral good taste, radical Islamists have instilled a level of fear into anyone that might criticize or satirize its religion.
Another event pitting the civil guarantee of free speech against sacred religious beliefs is the portrayal of Scientology in the popular animated cartoon South Park. In mocking the beliefs of well-known actors and spokespersons such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the cartoon similarly raised ethical issues in attacking one's beliefs. Reports attributed the cancellation of the repeat episode to pressure put on Viacom by Tom Cruise and his threat not to promote Mission Impossible III if the cartoon ran.
A final example is detailed in the documentary "This Divided Nation" (although there are many more, consider the Beckett Corporation's financial and political pressure surrounding the Men's Club in Elyria). The documentary surrounds a small conservative Mormon college in Utah that arranged to bring Michael Moore in to speak on their campus prior to the 2004 election. The town and the campus became religiously enraged, resulting in verbal threats, attempted bribery and, ultimately, a loss in funding (reportedly $200,000), over the student government's decision to bring in a non-conservative, Democratic speaker. Although many students did acknowledge that this was an issue of free speech, and some even spoke to the irony of their own religious intolerance (and missions), most that opposed Moore's appearance had not seen "Fahrenheit 9/11"- rather, had simply heard that he was "evil."
While I do not endorse "mocking" or taking other cheap shots at one's beliefs or spirituality, I do fully endorse the critical examination of religions that attempt to promote itself or its particular values onto society. If Muslims are going to suggest that their religion is a peaceful one, then, in turn, riot over a cartoon published in a foreign country- then I believe we have the right to examine its religious claims. If Tom Cruise is going to use his celebrity status to publicly promote Scientology, then I believe we are afforded the right to examine his religion and publicly comment on its rational. Similarly, if Mormons are going to hypocritically deny the right of a non-conservative to speak, in the midst of their religious missions where they consistently ask people for open-mindedness, then I support the right to examine and criticize their religious ideology. Finally, an issue that needed no introduction here in Ohio, if Christians are going to use religious morality found in The Bible to support a constitutional amendment banning gay-marriage, then let us examine The Bible for moral consistency.
It seems to me, at a level reaching near absurdity, that many religions want the best of several worlds. They wish to maintain their non-political, tax-exempt status while not only attempting to influence societal values, but also threatening, either financially, politically or through fear, those that dare to get in its way. They want all the benefits afforded religions, and they want it without the slightest sort of religious examination or criticism- under the guise of sacred and personal spiritual belief.
How much longer can governments, corporations and politicians remain tolerant and subservient to the influence of religious leaders and their followers, who are doing their best to exemplify the reason, and brilliance, behind the separation of church and state?