What Does Religious Freedom Mean Today?


Some people misuse the cause of religious freedom by making it a weapon against their opponents, says Lovett H. Weems Jr. However, this cherished freedom was established on behalf of those with minority views and beliefs. It is not a pretense for discrimination, a license to do anything in the name of religion, or a guarantee of religious comfort.

The United States is fortunate to have a heritage of religious freedom. The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights represented all manner of religious persuasions, and they understood the importance of establishing a nation in which the dignity of all persons is respected and protected no matter their religious commitments.

George Washington captured this spirit in a letter written to members of the nation’s oldest synagogue, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. “The Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” he wrote. “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Sadly, the United States also has a history in which religious intolerance, discrimination, and even violence have regularly found expression. Looking back, we can see many times and ways in which citizens have not lived up to the ideal of religious freedom established by our founders. The concept of a nation that is evenhanded in its approach to religious expression is now regularly challenged. In fact, there has been an effort by the powerful to view religious freedom as a weapon to use against those with whom they disagree, rather than as a shield for minority religious views.

The cause of religious freedom was established on behalf of those with minority views and beliefs. Regrettably, some members of groups who were subjected to discrimination during their years outside the mainstream seem to have forgotten their commitment to marginal or controversial movements once they neared the center of power. Religious leadership is needed today to protect those in danger and not to gain privilege for members of more ‘respectable’ groups.

The meaning of religious liberty today

Given the strong foundation of religious liberty built by those who established our nation and the history of painful challenges to that liberty, where do we look now? What are we as leaders to do in order to ensure religious freedom and liberty? What guidelines might we consider?

Traditionally Christians have looked to Baptists as the standard-bearers for religious liberty, particularly the separation of church and state and the protection of religious minorities. While that commitment has frayed in recent times for some Baptists as their status in society increased, several Baptist leaders have shared wise words about what religious freedom does and does not mean in our time.

1. Religious freedom is not an excuse to do anything in the name of religion.

“Religious liberty does not mean persons can do whatever they please,” maintains Molly Marshall. ”We live in community as citizens in a democracy that has both legal and social obligations.… Thus, the limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another.”

2. Religious freedom is never a pretense for discrimination.

Religious freedom has to do precisely with religious freedom. People have the right to worship where and how they choose without government interference. Marshall believes “the principle of religious liberty, as set forth in the First Amendment, is being hijacked by religious leaders and others who give it a narrow sectarian meaning that argues for personal privilege and concomitant discrimination.”

3. Religious freedom doesn’t mean religious comfort.

Amy Butler maintains there is a reason we don’t call it religious comfort. She writes, “Government should protect my right to practice my religion, but it’s not society’s obligation to make that practice easy or carefree. If your faith prevents you from sitting on an airplane next to a woman who isn’t your wife, then move to another seat. If your faith prevents you from selling wedding cakes to certain people, don’t go into the business of selling wedding cakes.”

As Corey Fields puts it, “Being required to conduct your business fairly and within commerce regulations does not constitute the loss of freedom or religious persecution.” He wonders why the business owners who don’t want to offer their services to some people on the basis of principle are quite willing to do business with those violating other tenets of their faith. Fields concludes, “American Christians tend to confuse criticism with persecution.”

The calling of Christians in a pluralistic world

The biblical prophets warned about the danger of a sense of religious superiority. Some of Jesus’s harshest words were directed to proud and intolerant religious people. Our God is larger than any human understanding of who God is. Therefore, Christians are called to resist abridging the freedom of those whose understanding of God varies from our own.

Our leadership may be complicated today because we function in a changing world. It is increasingly unlikely that lay and clergy religious leaders serve where they are surrounded only by those who share their understanding of faith. The U.S. has long been a nation of diverse religious traditions, but many of us have experienced just the denominational variations of Christianity, often living where one numerically strong tradition shaped the religious ethos of the region. For others, Will Herberg’s classic book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955), describes the shape of the religious world they have experienced. Today’s world is notable for the presence of people practicing a great range of world religions as well as a rapidly growing group who claim no religion.

This different world does not mean the uniqueness of Christian witness should be forgotten. Christians are still resolved to make an active and sometimes distinctive witness in society. But Christians who know genuine religious freedom do not feel the need to use public laws and institutions in a way that violates the religious freedom of others who don’t share their faith or profess any faith.

Christians do not seek special treatment from the government for the promotion of their fundamental beliefs. Christians seek only the opportunity to freely worship and proclaim their religious faith in the marketplace of religious ideas. Christian leaders are called to ensure that others have the same freedom we seek for ourselves to respond to God in myriad ways without public favor or ridicule, without privilege or discrimination. Our founders and our faith require no less.


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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