Battling Big Silence In Big Sky Country

I made a speaking tour through Montana recently, and it felt like going home again even though I'm not from there, and my only other visit was a brief summer vacation in Yellowstone National Park years ago.

Montana felt homey because I got the opportunity to catch up with two of my favorite former Washington "temporary residents," two men who know firsthand what it means to do battle with the Religious Right.

In Bozeman, my first stop, John Frohnmeyer attended my speech at Montana State University. John was the courageous head of the National Endowment for the Arts who endured years of attacks by the Religious Right, which labors to shut down all federal funding of the arts. Pat Robertson and his followers charge that the NEA has funded "blasphemous" art. It apparently never dawned on them that the agency also supports exhibitions of art with religious themes or gospel choirs and cannot reasonably be accused of anti-religious animus. John wrote a book about his adventures called Leaving Town Alive.

The next day I had a chance to have lunch with former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams. Pat was not just a strong opponent of mandated school prayer and vouchers, but he fought valiantly to keep government funds from subsidizing day care in religious institutions. He bucked the tide even in retirement, actually going home instead of sticking around D.C. to work as a high-paid lobbyist.

Pat talked to me about one of his biggest concerns these days: silence. He does a regular column for newspapers in the state and a monthly radio commentary. Far Right forces are always trying to get him removed from these soapboxes. They write letters to the editor and call radio station managers. Too often, though, his supporters don't make known how much they agree with him; they are silent. Hearing little positive response isn't just hard on the ego (Pat never worried about that), but it means that people who agree with you don't know they are part of a larger community of folks and are not as isolated as they might think.

One group in Montana that is breaking the silence is the Montana Human Rights Network. MHRN sponsored most of my trip and has proven to be a model for how to raise awareness about the variety of human rights abuses. It is active in tracking the militia movement in the state, and co-director Ken Toole just released an excellent report "Drumming Up Resentment: The Anti-Indian Movement in Montana." This chronicles the decades-long effort by extremists to abrogate federally guaranteed treaty rights and otherwise violate the rights of Native Americans.

I found that the indefatigable efforts of organizer Paul Shively, who drove me from site to site during my visit to this big state, also makes him well connected. By working with a local group in Helena, Paul arranged for me to be a keynote speaker at a day-long conference on education at Carroll College. It was eye-opening to me.

The other keynoter was Kevin Howlett, a member of the tribal council of the Salish-Kootenai Confederated Tribes. He gave specific examples of the kinds of problems faced by Indian children in reservation schools, who are almost always taught by non-Native American teachers who have never even had a course in Native history or culture.

One particularly sad story concerned a teacher who made light of a religious ceremony one of his students brought up in class. Criticizing religion was bad enough, but the teacher also effectively dismissed the significance of the boy's grandfather, who had told the youngster about the ceremony a deep affront to Native Americans. Students have a right to bring up religion when it is relevant to a classroom exercise, but teachers are supposed to be neutral in their responses.

Massive free-exercise-of-religion violations occurred routinely for the tribes earlier in the century when children were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to "boarding schools" run by religious groups, often long distances from the reservation. Several denominations often just divided the reservations among themselves. There was not even a pretense that these schools would do anything but try to suppress the Native American religion and replace it with one or another Christian creed.

There are many ways to break the silence that Pat Williams worries about. The Montana Human Rights Network seems to be working on all of them: bringing in speakers, publishing reports on homegrown issues, working with academic institutions, writing letters to the editor, calling in to radio talk shows, getting young people involved in the issues that really matter and doing myriad other things that make it easier for others to find their voice.

My hope is that local organizations activist networks, Americans United chapters and others will spring up in other states, helping the oppressed and victims of Religious Right attacks find their voices. Once they do, I hope they'll take some cues from MHRN, which is creating a chorus loud enough to fill even the biggest silent spaces of Big Sky Country.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.