L. Neil Smith's
Number 263, March 14, 2004

Damned if it's Bush. Damned if it's Kerry. Damn.

Freedom is My Religion
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

Some years ago, a movie depicting the last days of Jesus was made and released. The Last Temptation of Christ [VHS and DVD] opened to picket lines and protests across the country, and director Martin Scorcese (who said he made the film as an homage to his Christian beliefs) seemed both wounded and bewildered at the negative reaction. Obviously, I was intrigued by both crossing a picket line and the idea of seeing a movie that had inspired such events.

At the time, I lived in a large city. When we arrived at the theatre, the protesters were marching en masse. Many carried Bibles. Some were Catholic nuns dressed in their old fashioned black and white habits. As I moved toward the theatre entrance through a gap in the picket line, a woman shouted at me, "Don't go! It's evil!" Of course, I went anyway. Demands for bans of The Last Temptation of Christ continued until the movie died a natural death at the theatre. Since then, I've rarely seen it available for rent or on store shelves, which is a pity because the movie is amazing.

All these years later, we're seeing a similar phenomenon where a newly released film—The Passion of the Christ—is concerned. Only this time, the protests are coming from the opposite side of the spectrum. Christian churches of many denominations, particularly those that are the most conservative, are urging their congregations to see the movie. Yet some in the Jewish community are accusing the movie of being anti-Semitic, and others confess to being horrified by what they say is the graphic and non-stop violence of the film.

One thing the two movies do not have in common is the juggernaut that is the marketing machine for The Passion of the Christ. From pewter nails on black thongs to Bibles with the image of actor Jim Caviezel as Jesus gracing the cover; from the airbrushed hood of a Nascar racer to medals with "passion" printed on them in Aramaic; from the myriad magazine covers to the pervasive talk show presence; The Passion of the Christ is everywhere to be seen, and it's making more money and adding more "buzz" for the film in virtually every one of those places.

Whether you think the hype for The Passion of the Christ is warranted or not (I didn't; read my review to see why), and whether or not you're made uncomfortable by the unusual interpretation of the Martin Scorcese film, the real lesson to be learned from these two very different movies is a simple one: the First Amendment is a crucial protection for all of us.

In the case of both films, the men who made them felt the need to offer a very personal and creative expression of their faith. The First Amendment assures all of us that we can enjoy freedom of religion. So criticize the movies if you will for their script or production values, and buy a ticket or don't. But that some people have demanded in each case that the films be suppressed, censored, or even banned is a frightening threat to the freedom of us all.

The night I went to The Last Temptation of Christ, I saw a movie that was both the creation of a gifted filmmaker and one of the most emotionally wrenching films I've ever seen. When I left the theatre, much subdued and with tear tracks running down my cheeks, a man tried to push a pamphlet into my hands condemning the movie. I looked at him and asked, "Have you seen it?" He was horrified. "Of course not!" he said. I quietly told him," Maybe you should," and went on my way.

When I left the afternoon showing of The Passion of the Christ, I considered for a moment whether or not the film was particularly anti-Semitic or if the violence went too far. I concluded that yes, there is some anti-Semitism in the film if you acknowledge the fact that it was some of the Jews who demanded the Roman execution of Jesus. But that's a Biblically backed part of the story, something many are choosing to ignore probably because attacking Mel Gibson is a whole lot less dangerous than is attacking the Bible itself. And does the violence go too far? Well, it depends on the context. In this instance, yes, probably it's a little over the top. But in comparison to other movies, it's no bloodier than scenes we've all watched before but which didn't inspire this kind of criticism.

What I continue to find difficult to understand is not that these movies are polarizing, or that they generate debate or even disgust from those who disagree with one interpretation or another. No, what I see as both hypocritical and exceedingly dangerous is that people who haven't even seen a movie will ask that it be banned because they think it expresses a religious viewpoint with which they do not agree. Of course, at the same time, these people would be incensed if someone ordered them to stop talking about their views.

I find it reprehensible that people who have seen a movie and didn't like it, or were offended by some line or some action, would demand—during the course of exercising their own right to free speech and basing their expression on their own freely exercised religion—that a movie be altered or censored. Imagine their reaction if it were suggested that they omit one facet of their own expression of faith because someone somewhere found it offensive!

The First Amendment doesn't exist to protect the members of the most popular religions, or to ensure that we're allowed to say things that pretty much everybody agrees with. No, it was written to make sure that religious freedom is for everyone and for every religion, regardless of the number of followers it claims or what the followers of other creeds might think of it. The First Amendment exists so that even words many deem offensive can still be spoken without fear of arrest or enforced censorship.

At least, that's the way it is today. The only judgments forced on filmmakers, performers, or writers are currently—and should be— those of the box office, the ticket booth, and the best seller lists. But judging from the escalating demands of people representing various viewpoints at varying times, I have very little faith that that's the way it will stay. Unless, that is, all of us who believe in the First Amendment for ourselves will step up to defend it for others, even when we don't particularly care to hear what those others are saying.

Lady Liberty is a pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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