The Shadow Side of Freedom: Building the Religious Counterculture

Americans, we love our freedom. We sing about it in our national anthem. We pledge allegiance to it. Our soldiers ostensibly fight and die for it. This nation was founded on a struggle for freedom from a parental power, culminating in the establishment of an “independent” nation of autonomous persons, each defined by his or her individual right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And, of course, it was the struggle for religious freedom that brought many of the European colonists to the Americas in the first place.

“What was sexual liberation for one generation became, in some ways, oppression for the next,” Ana Levy-Lyons writes. “At the end of the long, bloodstained road of struggle for women’s freedom … is the great shining beacon really Miley Cyrus?” Illustration by Olivia Wise (

So, it could be said that, at least for those who immigrated by choice, a love for the patriotic rhetoric of freedom is in our blood.

And yet, over the years, as the great freedom experiment of this nation has progressed, we have seen its shadow side. Today, the Tea Party and political conservatives in general hold the banner for a particular type of freedom—freedom from government regulations. We’ve seen the deadly results of this freedom on our ecosystems, on wealth distribution, on public health, on farm animals, and on the safety of our schools and city streets. Political liberals and progressives are quick to eschew this kind of freedom and argue for social and ecological accountability as a higher good.

But when it comes to “social issues” and religion, it’s liberals and progressives who hold the freedom banner. Reform Jews, liberal Christians, Unitarian Universalists, American Buddhists, yogis, spiritual progressives, and those who have no use for religion whatsoever reject the obligations imposed by religious dogmas, laws, and traditions. These groups privilege freedom differently yet no less adamantly than conservatives do. And this kind of freedom also has a shadow side.

Religious Modesty vs. Commodified Sexuality

In a previous Tikkun article, I wrote about Mayim Bialik, the Jewish neuroscientist-turned–TV actor whose religious commitments have become quite public as she regularly reflects on them in print and online.

TV actor Mayim Bialik chooses to adhere to Jewish modesty laws—even at the Emmys. Credit: Patrick McMullan/AP Photo.

She is vegan (to model how to care for the earth) and she keeps kosher. She is a vocal proponent of attachment parenting. She adheres to Jewish modesty laws in what she wears onscreen and off: clothing has to cover elbows, knees, and collarbone. Bialik has struggled publicly with how to pull this off in the glitzy, sexy Hollywood world, especially when it came to finding a dress to wear to the Emmys.

She called the quest to find this dress “Operation Hot and Holy.”

While Bialik’s story is charming in ways, some Tikkun readers may have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, a smart, confident, modern woman is standing up for her beliefs in a countercultural way. On the other hand, a smart, confident, modern woman is submitting herself to what is arguably a sexist, archaic set of rules invented by a bunch of men in the Middle Ages.
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