It’s rather common in headlines and news articles these days to see “religious freedom” placed in scare quotes. Many seem to think religious liberty is just a Religious Right Trojan horse for Christian privilege.
Here are four popular myths about religious liberty I commonly encounter.
Myth #1: Religious freedom is about ending the separation of church and state.
This myth is grounded in a misunderstanding of church/state separation, held by many on the secular progressive Left and some on the religious Right. Church/state separation, as practiced in this country, was not supported simply by Enlightenment skeptics but by orthodox believers.
The Revolutionary-era Baptists, for example, were hardly “progressive” in theology or politics. Nevertheless, they knew the state shouldn’t have the power to establish a religion or to restrict the free exercise of religion. They knew Jesus had commanded his followers to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21). This means taxation and the obedience of legitimate civil law. But the state is not given power of worship or power over the conscience, and a state that pretends to such power has overstepped its bounds.
Religious freedom isn’t about tearing down the separation of church and state; it’s about maintaining the separation. This doesn’t mean the separation of religious convictions from public debate; such a forced secularization would have left us without an abolitionist movement, anti-war movements, and the civil rights movement. It does mean, though, that the church doesn’t attempt to punish unbelief with civil power and that the state doesn’t attempt to interfere with the living out of religious convictions, except where necessary for public order and justice.
Myth #2: Religious freedom is about discriminating against those with whom we disagree.
Believe it or not, most religious people in this country have no desire to withhold their friendship, much less their business, from people with whom they disagree, even on serious issues. Some have suggested that bills spelling out religious freedom rights give businesses the “right to discriminate,” especially against gay and lesbian persons. This is not true.
The cases in dispute on this front are not about businesses with “no gays allowed” policies. They aren’t about a refusal to serve gay people, but about persons being compelled, by state coercion, to use their speech to actively support weddings they believe would cause them to personally sin. Religious freedom means that religious convictions ought to be considered when these sorts of conflicts emerge. It’s hardly in the best interest of anyone—secular or religious—to ask people in the marketplace to act in ways they consider immoral, just because their views are unpopular at the moment.
Myth #3: Religious freedom allows people to ignore the law.
Some suggest that religious freedom protections allow people simply to skirt the law, as though one is issued a card exempting him or her from catering gay weddings or providing abortion drugs in insurance plans. That’s hardly the case. We have long respected the right of religiously motivated conscientious objectors to be exempted from combat duty that violates their consciences. No, this doesn’t mean a laissez-faire policy of draft dodging for anyone who claims a religious objection. It just means the government looks into the religious claims and doesn’t force, by penalty of jail, Mennonites or other pacifists to drop bombs or fire rifles. Nor does the accommodation of Native American religions to use eagle feathers in their worship mean open season on endangered species.
Accommodating religious convictions where possible has helped our country to cooperate across divisions, and has helped us to remain far more unified and pluralistic than we would otherwise be.
Myth #4: Religious freedom is just about protecting Christians.
I’ve heard some say that “religious freedom” is just another way of saying “Christian privilege.” Is it true some Christians haven’t been as consistent as they should have been in protecting religious freedom for all? Certainly. Americans, in virtually every segment, have been less than consistent in maintaining all of our natural rights for unpopular groups at various times in our history. That doesn’t make freedom of speech or freedom of the press any less important.
The most publicized religious freedom cases in recent years have involved Christians, cases such as Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor. But the same groups pressing for religious freedom in these cases have also been active in cases involving religious minorities—including Muslims and Sikhs and Native American spiritualities, in ways less covered by news media. See, for example, cases involving a Muslim woman’s EEOC complaint against Abercrombie and Fitch for discriminating against her for wearing her traditional Islamic headdress. See the case of the Muslim prisoner who successfully sued for the right to wear his beard in keeping with his religious convictions. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), now so controversial, originated—with support from religious conservatives and left-wing civil libertarians alike—in a case protecting ceremonial peyote use by Native American religionists.
Such advocacy for religious freedom for all has a rich history among American Christians, including the most conservative evangelicals. Early Baptists like John Leland, for example, spoke out for “soul freedom” for Jews and Muslims and even atheists at a time when few even existed in this country. The point was that religious freedom is not a spoil of government, dispensed to those with the most votes. Rather, religious freedom is a natural right, recognized by government but not legislated into existence by government.
Culture War Casualties
Religious liberty doesn’t fuel culture wars. It protects fundamental freedoms from culture war casualties, regardless of which side is winning at the moment.
That’s why religious freedom is important, and why debunking its cynics is so urgent.