The Common Good

What Religious Freedom Is — And Is Not

Right now, it’s difficult to voice a call for civility surrounding religious debates without backlash that you’re stomping on rights or stifling someone’s voice. But here’s hoping.

Religious freedom. What does it mean, and what were we promised? In Sunday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat — columnist and author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics — points out that we have a guaranteed right not only to religious belief, but to religious exercise. That right to religious exercise, he argues, is violated in cases like the HHS mandate and the Chick-fil-A debacle. 

From Douthat’s piece:

“If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.”

From here, people tend to go to extremes. On one side: boycott everything whose owner you have a philosophical or religious disagreement with on a personal level. But really do it. Sure it’s easy enough to shun fast food, but enough research will likely prove that our American dream to be comfortable far outweighs our attention span. (Please excuse my cynicism, and please let me know if any of you are successful in this endeavor. I’ll tip my hat to you.) 

Of course, it cuts both ways. Extremism comes in a variety of political preferences, so I’ll throw this out there as well: No, there is not a “war on religion” in the United States.

Language like that is offensive on a lot of levels. First of all, it is insulting to those engaging — and dying in — actual war, genocide, and ethnic conflict. Secondly, there are real, egregious violations of religious freedom throughout the world that we Americans — as we pass by more flavors of churches than fried chicken chains on Main Street — find difficult to fathom. 

Today, the State Department released its 2011 International Religious Freedom Report. It lists the continued imprisonment of Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran, the crackdown on house churches and Tibetan self-immolations in China, and the targeting of churches in Syria’s attacks against its own people.

“… too many people live under governments that abuse or restrict freedom of religion. People awaken, work, suffer, celebrate, raise children, and mourn unable to follow the dictates of their faith or conscience,” the report reads. 

These violations of religious freedom are about life and death — not fried chicken. 

This is not to say we shouldn’t stand up for religious freedom where we feel it violated, even on a smaller scale. Many Catholics would argue that some provisions in the HHS mandate are life issues. And not subscribing to that belief doesn’t make it ridiculous. 

But seeing those suffering abroad — seeing people still willing to die for their faith — puts things in perspective. It invites you to think before you invoke the religious freedom card. 

Think before you decide that the rights of an entire segment of the population should be subjected to a religious debate. (Read: Gay marriage should not be seen as an affront to your religious freedom.)

Think before you start to use someone’s out-of-context words for political posturing. I’m looking at you, mayors of the United States. Be careful before jumping on the “not-in-my-city” (mildly unconstitutional) bandwagon. 

Think before you decide that religious freedom is only applicable to your religion — or that Muslims shouldn’t have the same right as Christians to build their houses of worship.

And as Christians, we should think before we judge, condemn, or boast. Rachel Held Evans pointed this out in her post on the Chick-fil-A debate:

“There is no need to cause unnecessary offense to folks who have already been so ostracized by the Church, no need to wave a red and white banner through yet another culture war.  If you really want to love your gay friends and neighbors, shoving Chick-fil-A bags in their faces right now is just not the way to do it.”

Mindlessly tossing out words like “homophobe,” “religious persecution,” “bigot,” and “evil,” doesn’t do anything but alienate others and foment opposition.

We could all do well to stop and think before a knee-jerk reaction to the next “news” story forces us further apart. 

Sandi Villarreal is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. You can follow her on Twitter @Sandi.

Bible and flag, JustASC / Shutterstock.com

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