Singing in Dimly Lit Places: Is Religious Freedom Under Threat?

Here is the question that will be on Patheos Public Square  next week: While the principle of religious freedom is inscribed in the Constitution and forms a core idea of American democracy, it has also become an increasingly embattled issue amid broader cultural tensions over individual rights, the power of government, and the separation of church and state. Is religious freedom under threat, as many advocates claim? What does it mean to defend religious freedom in a diverse, modern society where rights of different groups may be in conflict? Is religious freedom more important or fundamental than other rights?

My response, below…


The short answer is: yes. Religious freedom is under significant threat in America.

A troubling new study reveals that more than half of Sikh-American children are bullied in school.

Yes, religious freedom is under threat: When a public school teacher tells a Buddhist child that his faith is “stupid.”

Yes, religious freedom is threatened when Muslims—or people who look sort of middle eastern—are profiled in airport security, given a wide berth on the subway, or generalized as terrorists in even the most mainstream media.

Religious freedom is threatened when atheists are demonized in dominant culture. Or held up as cautionary tales, desperate charity cases, or narrative props in inspiring conversion stories.

When significant lobbying dollars go toward ‘defending’ Christian prayer in schools, and promoting the display of 10 “Christian” commandments (which, ahem, are actually Jewish) in the public classroom—then yes, the religious freedom of all others appears subjective, at best.

When some public schools still don’t teach real science for fear of faith-based pushback—whether it be from a slim minority or a sweeping majority of parents—then religious freedom, as defined in the constitution, has failed us all.

When ‘religious freedom’ becomes the mask for any number of social ills—from sexist healthcare and employment policies to state-sanctioned discrimination against same-sex couples—then yes. Freedom has absolutely left the building and exclusionary entitlement has taken its place at the table. Fear-based rhetoric has supplanted open discourse. And we’ve exchanged relational engagement for name calling and finger pointing.

While Christians sometimes persecute non-Christians, I’m also worried about…well, US. I’m worried that our freedom to worship God and openly follow Jesus is threatened by the people who use our brand of faith to limit the rights of others. Because eventually, this tide will turn. Eventually, we will see an epic ‘over-correct’ in the world’s tolerance for Christian authority.

Because—have you noticed?—dominant Christian culture is not so dominant any more.

So yes, every time someone abuses the Bible or the Constitution in order to inhibit the rights of another person, we are all at risk. Eventually, the world is not going to want to hear about our God or our Jesus any more, and we will be the ones taking to the basements, to the woods; singing our songs in dimly lit hallways.

Because when Christianity becomes synonymous with crooked political dealings; unjust business practices; the bullying of children and the denial of significant environmental concerns… When that happens, (or as it continues to happen) then who will want to see us coming?

Freedom of religion, in principle, emerged from a desire to escape the tyranny of government-sanctioned belief and practice. That article of governance exists SO THAT whomever is in power at the moment cannot subject the minority to his (yes, usually his) particular form of belief or practice. The First Amendment is meant to protect faith from governance. When Christian leaders attempt to write faith into law, they abuse the spirit of the law– creating the very tension it was meant to destroy.

Here’s the truth: faith is the substance of things hoped for. Faith is the conviction of things unseen. Faith is not the word for word writ of doctrine, sanctified by the law of the land. To practice any religion is to believe in a power higher than one’s self; to trust in a Creative force, alive and at work in the world.

And our faith, whatever we call it, or however we identify it, tells us this: we are all the ‘other.’  Isn’t this exactly what the Constitution was meant to celebrate and protect?

Isn’t this exactly why our faith calls us to think a little bigger and live less fearfully?




About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS ( She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...