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?




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  • billwald

    Agree . . . if you include atheists as suspects into the mix.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      You mean the historically marginalized group that just wants “Big Religion” to get out of their lives?

    • Do you mean the group that actually wants church and state separated for the betterment of believers and non-believers alike?

  • Alyxander M Folmer

    I’ve never seen this blog until now, but I think I’ll be following it closely.
    Well said!

  • jimburklo

    Amen, Erin! Religious right-wingers are turning real religious freedom on its head by trying to use it as cover to discriminate against those who are “other” to them. We need to call ’em out on this tactic!

  • D Lowrey

    Because when Christianity becomes synonymous with crooked political dealings; unjust business practices

    Hate to alert you about this…but having lived in The Bible Noose and LDS strongholds…I have seen those in power in the LDS and Southern Baptist belief structures. Because of the abuses I have been subjected to in the past (40+ years)…unless I have no other choice…I will not deal with any business claiming they are “christian”. Over 90% of the time…they are the ones who are willing to be the most unchristian in their dealings.

  • CroneEver

    And, of course, those who believe that their religious freedom is at risk and/or denied if they do not have the right to impose their definition of religious behavior on other people… I have had it up to my back teeth with “religious objections.”

  • Ms. Wathen, I have to say this first: I’m an atheist. I loved your article. It was concise, blunt at times, and exactly what I view as a growing problem for my fellow humans who call themselves Christian. Brilliant essay.

  • Tami Terry Martin

    It just never ceases to amaze me how people who shout from the rooftops about their religious freedom are working so very hard to deny it to everyone else. Thank you for this. I hope to see this over and over and over again until ever last one of us “gets it!”

  • R Vogel

    “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.”

    So the question is if ‘the brand’ is incorrigibly sullied, which I propose that it is, should you still call it ‘your’ brand? I have been saying over and over again this week, in light of the WV debacle, that they control the brand ‘christianity.’ It is time to leave it behind. When people think of ‘christian’ in the US, they don’t think of the lovely, social justice minded people who write blogs on the PC channel of Patheos. They think of Pat Robertson, Phil the Hillbilly, Franklin Graham, and the Gospel (of Death) Coalition. As long as we declare solidarity with them by sharing their ‘brand,’ Jesus-loving people will be the collateral damage in the coming confrontation. We already see it with young people fleeing the churches, ALL churches. They don’t see the distinction. How do we show that our solidarity is not with the principalities and powers that rule ‘christianity’ but with those they reject, oppress, and persecute? JUST LIKE JESUS!! Is it time for a theological walk-out? If my LBGT brothers and sister have been declared ‘not christian’ by the powers, should I continue to use the brand label? Is their another option?

    I realize asking this of a senior pastor of St Andrew ‘christian’ Church is not going to be met with enthusiastic acceptance, but do you have a another option? (BTW I love the name ‘Disciples of Christ’)