Religious Liberty—Yes, but for whom?
We are hearing a lot in the political arena about religious liberty. For the most part this message is coming from more conservative corners of the religio-political spectrum. More often than not the focus is on two items—contraception and gay marriage. It has become a rallying cry, especially among conservative evangelicals, but also among Roman Catholics. While I might disagree with my fellow religionists on both matters, they are free to believe and practice these beliefs if they choose. What they can’t do is force those beliefs on others. Therefore, what you desire for yourself you must grant others. At least, that is my reading of the First Amendment.
Here’s the thing. I’m a pastor, and as a pastor I’m all for religious liberty. I believe that religious liberty is enshrined in the First Amendment and needs to be defended. People should be free to believe what they wish and practice their faith as they choose (as long as those practices are not illegal and do not endanger others—thus no ritual abuse or sacrifices). I realize that there are often fine lines to be drawn and that religion can be invoked to cover behavior that is reprehensible. That said, I want to come back to my original question, and that concerns to whom is religious liberty accorded?
As John Fea notes in his recent book Believe Me, for at least some advocates of religious liberty, such liberty is to be accorded only to Christians. He points to the message of Baptist pastor and Donald Trump advisor Robert Jeffress who, according to Fea, “peddles the false notion that the disestablishment clause in the First Amendment was meant to apply solely to Protestant denominations, meaning that the founders did not want a ‘Presbyterian nation’ or a ‘Baptist nation,’ but simply assumed that we were a Christian nation” (Believe Me, p. 161). Such an interpretation is problematic in multiple ways, but even if the United States is a majority Christian nation and though Christianity has informed our civil religion, a growing number of American citizens are not Christians. So, when we speak of religious liberty, do we understand it as Christian Nationalist Jeffress does, in his suggestion that the government can favor Christianity over other religions? Or, when we speak of religious liberty does the First Amendment protect all religions, Christian or not?
I ask this because I’ve heard people who advocate for religious liberty for Christians advocate its denial for others, especially Muslims. I have a friend who is running for the Michigan State House. She’s a Hindu who has been a strong advocate for Hindus to be fairly represented in American life. Years ago, she found herself in the middle of a dispute in our local community after she asked to be included in a National Day of Prayer event being sponsored by the city. She was denied that opportunity on the grounds that this was a “Judeo-Christian” event. Thus, even though she was a resident of the community, she was denied the opportunity to offer a prayer for the nation as a Hindu. The same people arguing for Religious liberty were among those denying her religious liberty. I’ve seen Muslim communities, among other non-Christian religious communities, be denied the opportunity to build houses of worship, simply because they’re Muslims and Muslims are going to take over the country if we don’t stop them.
Do I believe in religious liberty? Yes, by all means. But religious liberty must be granted to all people of faith (or no faith at all), or it wouldn’t seem to pass constitutional muster. In other words, the Constitution seems to guarantee religious pluralism.