It was an early fall Sunday evening on Lookout Mountain, Ga., in the mid-1960s. Several of us should have been heading for the evening service at our local church. But a devious spirit of adventure had grabbed us. "Did you hear," one of our little group dared us, "about the snake handlers at that church over on Sand Mountain?"
Four or five of us stuffed ourselves into my '64 VW beetle for the 35-minute drive into remote, rural northeast Alabama to the Rock House Holiness Church where Brother John Wayne "Punkin" Brown was leading a week-long revival. Each night's service featured the hands-on passing around of four- and five-foot timber rattlers, and maybe a few stray copperheads.
Sure enough when we arrived, on tables across the church's front porch were a half dozen wire cages from which came an ominously dry buzz. Just inside were still more cages.
But the attention of these mountain folks wasn't on the snakes but on two cars that seemed to have arrived just ahead of us: the Jackson County sheriff and a team of his deputies. They had come to enforce state law that decreed that the "freedom of religion" clause was not quite as broad as Brother John Wayne "Punkin" Brown liked to say it was. Specifically, the sheriff announced, the U.S. Bill of Rights did not include the right to endanger the lives of worshippers. (For the record, Brother John died in 1998 after being bitten by a timber rattler).
Fast forward a dozen years, then, and come with me to the little country of Guyana on South America's northern coast. You may need to rehearse the bizarre and grim history of what happened there in Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978-and even after that rehearsal, you may find it hard to decide whether the issues were primarily religious or political. More than 900 people died that day in a mass suicide, almost all of them having been persuaded by their leader, Jim Jones, that death together was better than life apart from each other.
Criticism of this strange cult, which Jones launched in Indiana in the 1950s, then moved to California before emigrating to Guyana, had been escalating. Then, just days before the deadly finale, the "county sheriff" showed up-except that in this case it was Leo Ryan, a U.S. congressman from northern California. "Yes," Rep. Ryan affirmed, "these folks have the right to practice whatever weird religion they want. But there are some limits." At the end of his brief visit to Jonestown, Ryan and several members of his investigative team were shot to death. It was almost certainly the only case on record of a U.S. congressman being assassinated while exploring how far First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom should extend. The followup investigation, litigation, and regulatory response were thorough and even severe.
Yet you've probably never heard anyone worry, in either of these cases, that the government was abusing its power.
Which is in stark contrast with the current debate over the prerogatives of a group of Muslims to build a mosque and community center wherever they want on American soil. Everybody (and that includes some pretty conservative commentators) is worried that Muslims' First Amendment rights might possibly be jeopardized.
That's an understandable concern. But Americans have always made room for common sense-even for what we call guaranteed rights. That's why we've said it's OK to limit the "religious rights" of snake handlers and cultish weirdos.
But doesn't such limitation of Muslims' rights prove that we're bigots-that we're really a nation of Islamophobes? No, it simply reminds us that in a world where Muslims just last week barbarically stoned a man and a woman to death; where the week before they shot and killed a selfless eye doctor and his team; where even now it's hard to name a single predominantly Muslim country where construction of a Christian church is allowed-in such a world, common sense says there's room to call in the county sheriff and let him ask a few questions.
Email Joel Belz
Listen to Joel Belz podcasts