The Trouble With Religious Freedom
The cross at Ground Zero. Photo credit: 2002 Ernie Bello/flickr. Use does not represent endorsement by the photographer.
I grew up in an Evangelical Christian home where conservative media was considered part of a healthy diet and fear was a key ingredient. I was raised to believe that the walls were coming down on this planet, and that Christians were target number one. The implication was that it was best to stay close to the people and beliefs I knew, to hold tight, and pray hard. Plug into conservative media today and you will see that little has changed when it comes to employing fear. Consumers are greeted with a barrage of alerts and other perceived attacks on Christianity. The internet piles on, with end-times newsletters forecasting yet another development on the path to Armageddon and scary emails warning of the latest threat to religious freedom. Not only are most of these reports fictitious, but corrosive to faith in Christ.
You may have heard about the guy who was arrested, fined, and jailed in Arizona for hosting church in his house? Conservative media went into a frenzy, and then the facts of the case came out. The man had constructed a detached 2,000 square foot space dubbed a “game room” though it looked just like a sanctuary, which he was using to host upwards of 80 people for two services each week. After noise complaints from neighbors, traffic congestion, and 67 civil code violations, the man was eventually arrested. The facts offer a stark contrast from what was being suggested by the headlines. The government did not barge in to arrest a family worshiping quietly in their living room.
The Evangelical Christian community finds itself frequently spooked by a roster of fabricated bogeymen, in a time when accuracy is considered frilly while sensation is viewed as substantial. In this space, events are presented to show us at a tipping point. Arguments tend to focus on the slippery slope. The facts get buried while the mere suggestion of a threat wins an eternal life.
The trouble with religious freedom is not the freedom itself. The right to worship and to share our faith is a blessing. The trouble begins when we insist on keeping religious freedom as we define it, and allow it to divide our attention away from the calling of Christ. Unencumbered religious freedom is impossible to achieve, because each person has a different view of what freedom must include, and a variable tolerance for what constitutes persecution. It is no surprise that the quest for religious freedom has fostered a climate of discontent among many Christians. Is that what we want to be known for?
My concern is that American Christians are more prone to suspicion and distrust when we frame ourselves as victims despite living in a pluralistic society. Christians might not win every dispute over the placement of a cross in a public setting, but this is miles away from losing our robust religious freedoms. More to the point, faith in Christ has almost nothing to do with the prominence of even the most cherished Christian symbols. Faith is about growing in the good news of Christ resurrected, an experiential relationship with God the author, shared with God’s creation. As modeled by Christ, his disciples, and the early church, faith is a courageous, lively action, taking us boldly in love to those outside of our comfort zone. I think 2 Timothy 1:7 is helpful to consider here: “for God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Other translations replace “self-discipline” with “a sound mind,” and I think that works nicely too.
Religious freedom is something we aren’t guaranteed in this life and don’t even need. The church has thrived in places without it. We are fortunate to have such freedoms here in the U.S., and they are not going away, no matter what conservative media, scary emails, or end times newsletters have to say. What we don’t have is unrestrained religious supremacy, where Christians get whatever privilege we can dream up, and thank God, because supremacy is not good for the church. Christ achieved victory over sin and death, and walked in The Way through surrender and sacrifice. He did warn of persecution for those who follow him, but this does not apply to everything spooky or uncomfortable, especially when those things are so often built around falsehoods.
The religious freedom we already have is more than enough. Instead of focusing on every square inch of what we think is our rightful turf, we have the option to be grateful, focus on being a blessing in various ways, to seek justice, and to say a prayer or advocate for our brothers and sisters who encounter real persecution elsewhere in the world. The more we in America are known for culture war crusades under the banner of religious freedom, the more irrelevant the church becomes.