Freedom of Religion*

Pew Research Center (PRC) released a study last year that covered a seven year span, from 2007 to 2014. According to the study, in that seven year period, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%. That’s a 7.8% drop in seven years. Yet, that’s still 7 in 10 Americans who identify with some branch of the Christian stream. That’s 70% of the population of these United States that identify with some branch or offshoot of the Christian tradition. I bring this up because there’s a persecution complex that seems to be afflicting a lot of Christians in our country. 

We (those of us who claim to belong to the Christian community) are not being persecuted. Not even close. There are people in the world who are, however. There are people who, by simply belonging to a Christian community, are risking their lives. And people aren’t saying Merry Christmas to them, either. To claim that we are persecuted here, in the United States of America, is an offense, a slap in the face, to those who actually are being persecuted. 

This brings up another, closely related, issue. There’s been more and more discussion lately about “religious liberty.” Religious liberty, of course, is enshrined in the First Amendment to US Constitution, and it reads like this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Essentially, the government can’t tell you which church to go to or which religion to participate in. Actually, you’re free to avoid religion altogether. It’s not just freedom of religion, but also freedom from it, if you choose. 

A PRC study released in August of this year found that 40% of the respondents attended religious services at least once or twice a week, and 40% of that 40% (you with me?) reported that their clergyperson spoke about religious liberty. Among that 40%, 32% said the clergyperson spoke in defence of religious liberty, while 2% reported their clergyperson did not think religious liberty is under attack in America (6% said their clergyperson did both). 

What does this tell us? Lots of pastors believe their religious liberty is under attack. Since my cards are on the table (I’m one of the 2%), I want to offer a few thoughts about what is actually going on here. 

I think the phrase “religious liberty,” or “freedom of religion,”when it is used among Christians should often come with an asterisk. 

Freedom of Religion*

I think this would be more honest, because many people who bemoan Christian “persecution” in America aren’t really concerned about the freedom of religion for everyone; they are concerned about freedom of their religion. Lots of people wouldn’t bat an eye, and might actually celebrate, if the worship spaces of other religious traditions (especially Muslims) were under surveillance, or shut down altogether. Lots of people would support banning Muslim women from wearing their burkinis on the beach, like some regions have in France. How would they respond to their churches being surveilled? Or being forbidden to wear a cross or a t-shirt or a WWJD? bracelet (is that still a thing?)? To be blunt, it is hypocritical to complain about your religious liberty being diminished, if the diminishment of another’s doesn’t bother you.

I also think some have confused “religious liberty” with “public relations.” Here’s what I mean: You have the freedom to denounce people of other religions, races, sexual orientations, and ideologies. As long as you aren’t breaking other laws (hate speech, terroristic threatening, etc.), you can not only believe what you want, but actually speak about that belief. Publicly.  However, when the vast majority of people respond unfavorably, that doesn’t mean you’re being persecuted, or that your religious liberty is being taken away. It means that lots of people are exercising their right to free speech and religious liberty as well. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to publicly say what you believe, then you have to accept the reality that lots of people may respond unfavorably. That’s how it works. 

I think we should strive to protect the religious liberty of all people; Christian, Muslims, Atheists, everyone. I think my fundamentalist brothers and sisters have the right to their opinion. I also think those of us who might disagree have a right to express that disagreement, always civilly, always nonviolently. And they have the same right to disagree with me or others.

I’m grateful for this freedom. Truly grateful. So, let’s not diminish the sacrifices of those who sought to preserve these rights for us by claiming we are persecuted, when in fact we are just being disagreed with. Let’s not diminish the real suffering of our brothers and sisters (of any religious tradition) that are in danger because of their religious convictions around the world. Let’s agree to be kind and compassionate, all the while also being firm and convicted. Let’s agree to live out the teaching of Jesus, and actually every other major religious tradition as well, and treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. 

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