A classic Paul Simon song for scribes to hum when covering religious freedom issues

 "Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."  

Paul Simon included that line in his emotionally moving song, "The Boxer." The words have long rung true for me.

These days, I find them particularly relevant when thinking about religious freedom issues -- both domestic and international -- and much of what journalists write about them.

Which is to say that too often, respect for religious freedom comes down to whose ox is being gored.

On the domestic front, Simon's words spring to mind when reading many of the stories written about the successful -- for the moment, at least -- Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

His words also seem blindingly appropriate when considering these two international stories, one from Indonesia and one from China's ethnic Tibetan region, both published by The New York Times.

Please read both stories to better understand this post and to keep me from having to stuff this column with critical but wordy explanatory background -- as might have been necessary in the long-ago world of pre-links journalism. It's a new world. Make use of the links. The photos accompanying both stories alone are worth your time.

Click here for the Indonesia story. And click here for the China story.

Notice how sympathetic both stories are toward the religious and social views of the indigenous tribe, in the Indonesian case, and toward Tibetan Buddhism, in the China story.

Understand that my observation is by no means a criticism. On the contrary, I think acknowledging the spiritual beliefs and the religious freedoms due Indonesia's Mentawai people and the Buddhist monastics living at Larung Gar in China's Sichuan Province should be a requirement of American-style journalism.

Historically, we all know, that has not been the case. Indigenous beliefs were generally of no concern to the pioneering reporters who followed white America's westward expansion. Africa, Asia and the Americas are full of such stories.

But now that the cultural upheaval is mostly completed, remaining outposts in far-off jungles or mountain-top monasteries are viewed as unique vestiges of humanity's distant and pre-globalization past worth preserving, if only as living artifacts.

Look, it's complicated. Religion is about far more than theology and doctrinal beliefs and whether or not you attend Mass, fast on Yom Kippur, or refrain from drinking alcohol because your religious culture says you should. It's also a banner that provides cover for aggressive human tendencies while offering a sense of belonging to this or that cultural tribe.

Sometimes I think religious freedom might be better understood if we relabeled it religious tribalism -- or even religious libertarianism. By that I mean that everyone has the right to self-identify as they wish, and to congregate with whom they feel spiritual or psychological kinship.

Yeah, you might reply. But how does that work to the benefit of all in an increasingly pluralized American -- and global -- landscape? Good question, but other than changing human nature, I have no silver bullet answer. But there is that First Amendment that's written in ink on a rather important American page.

This seems particularly critical today, in the volatile aftermath of this year's American presidential election, in which the overwhelming majority of evangelical and other (theoretically) traditionalist, white Christians and Orthodox Jews -- to select just two groups -- voted for President-elect Donald Trump. That, despite his glaringly obvious, self-admitted, biblical-magnitude personal transgressions.

Concern for their First Amendment guaranteed religious liberties was one reason so many Americans who self-identify as religious voted for Trump. Their concern -- as GetReligion readers are well aware -- is that the secular culture insists on a degree of societal leveling that threatens their counter-cultural, religious and cultural beliefs.

I get that. Assimilation greases the wheels of commerce, but it leave many individuals rudderless and often defenseless in the face of majority points of view.

But then there's the religious freedoms of American Muslims to also think about. What, as a nation, do we do about those freedoms? By the way, journalists should note that religious liberty groups on the cultural left and on the right have been working to back Muslim groups in these cases. These are interesting times.

As I said above, it's complicated. It's one religious tribe trying to fend off what it regards as a potentially fatal level of encroachment by another. That this has long been the way of the world is of little comfort when your core identity is being challenged.

Of course this is not just a burgeoning domestic story. Read this Crux story warning about the rising persecution -- or denial of religious freedoms -- of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Or read this piece, also from the Times, that seeks to explain the growing support for Russia's Vladimir Putin by casting him as the last-line of defense for traditional white, Christian culture in the face of Islam's spread and Western democratic liberalism. Among his prime domestic supporters on moral and cultural issues is the Russian Orthodox Church.

Finally, there's this piece from Religion News Service noting that Turkish numero uno Recep Erdogan is satisfying his anti-Americanism by going after Turkey's Protestants, who he sees as agents of American influence. But then, Erdogan -- as the Orthodox Christian world understands -- has never shown himself to be a protector of religious freedom for non-Muslims.

So it goes both ways. Or perhaps more accurately, every religious sub-group seeks to safeguard itself, when the chips are down, at the expense of other religious sub-groups.

Remember all this when writing about religious freedoms issues. If it helps, hum "The Boxer." Here's some interesting background on the song's genesis, including Simon explaining its biblical influences.

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