One of the highly touted liberties in the United States is freedom of religion. It’s easy to believe this is true when you can walk down any “Church Street” in many mid-size towns and go shopping for a theology that fits your outlook. What remains hidden here, however, is that the freedom is largely restricted to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. (Yes, I know “Judeo-Christian is a disputed category, but it classifies several belief systems that share a basis in the Bible.) For religions that don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the biblical religions the story is quite different. That’s because, at least in part, our culture is based on the Bible and its limited worldview. Colonists, convinced by centuries of Christian hegemony, had assumed the rightness of the Christian outlook. The indigenous religions they encountered were, from their point of view, heathen.
The word “heathen” covers basically the same territory as “pagan.” Both mean a religion outside Christianity (and, grudgingly, Judaism). I’ve recently read that the etymology of heathen goes back to those who live in the heath, or country dwellers. Although this etymology is uncertain, it does make a great deal of sense. Christianity became an urban religion fairly early on. Not only that, it shook hands with empire and became the basis for capitalism. So much so that the two are now teased apart only with great difficulty. This also means that indigenous religions have never really had a place at the table. Especially when they challenged the dictates of the capitalistic outlook.
American Indian religion is closely tied to the land. As Vine Deloria made abundantly clear in God Is Red, any religion committed to ideas outside those of Christianity will lose when the two come into contact. One of the reasons is that secular science is based on a Christian worldview. Indians believe in sacred land. Since “objective” science is based on the Christian doctrines of creation, there can be no holy land apart from “the holy land.” At its very root the basic ideas of other religions are dismissed and therefore treated as if they aren’t religions at all. The Supreme Court continues to make decisions that violate the free practice of Indian religion. The recent fiasco with the Trump administration should show just how dangerous such thinking is. Like it or not, religious liberty means you have (for the time being) the right to be the brand of Christian you wish. Beyond that freedom has a very different meaning.