The Necessity of Religious Freedom

The Necessity of Religious Freedom May 23, 2019

I did a podcast last week and had a conversation with a graduate student on religious freedom. It got me thinking about why I value religious freedom so much. Indeed I think of it as a basic human right. And as I think about it, it is so important that when it is taken away, then we establish the grounds for a lot more abuses of our human rights.

As a Christian it is tempting to think that my interest in Christianophobia is driven by my desire to protect my faith. I think it foolish for me to deny that my research interests are not shaped by my own personal reality. This was the case when I studied issues of race and ethnicity. As an African-American I bring a perspective to racial issues that I think is important in the study of race and ethnicity. But that perspective brings a bias to that work as well. The same is true being a Christian who studies racial issues.

But my concern is not limited to anti-Christian bigotry. I am currently working on a paper looking at how individuals legitimate different types of anti-religious attitudes. I also have blogged on Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. I am concerned with religious freedom for everyone. We should all be free to believe what we want and to, within reason, live our lives according to those beliefs.

Of course religious freedom is not the only right that we have. Most of us are willing to support rights to a free press, free speech, freedom to work wherever we want, as long as we are qualified, to live wherever we want and political freedom. On the left, there is talk of reproductive rights, or abortion, and on the right there is talk about gun rights. Those freedoms are being contested. But on most freedoms we are in agreement that they are valid for us to have.

However, I see religious freedom as quite fundamental because it is the freedom to think about and believe whatever we want to believe. To take away that freedom will put most of our other freedoms at risk. One can take away freedom to work wherever one likes without threatening many of our other rights (i.e. speech, press etc.). But when we threaten religious freedom, we are threatening the right for people to think for ourselves. To fully implement such an oppression, you cannot allow free press or political freedom lest those forbidden ideas get out. Forget free speech as well. You can allow abortion or guns, unless they are somehow tied to particular religious beliefs, but those rights are contested on other grounds. Attacking religious freedom attacks almost all of our other basic human rights.

You will note I define religious freedom as not merely something to be kept in the walls of our religious institutions but also the right to live according to your faith. Of course there are limits to that freedom. You are free to believe in child sacrifice, but you are not allowed to engage in killing. So there may be some negotiation on what living our life according to our faith means and what is acceptable. My fear is the practice to dismissing religious freedom, of making it a hyphenated term as some have done, is to reduce our ability to live according to our faith more than is warranted. Are we going to go down the road of France which prohibits the wearing of certain religious clothes? So yes, we need a healthy respect for not just a right to worship but also a right to live out our conscience.

I argue that once we take away religious freedom that eventually, if we are not stopped or do not change our mind, will engage in egregious oppression of those who do not adhere to the proper religious stance. To enforce the proper religious position, we will have to remove, or significantly reduce, the political freedom of dissenters. We will have to stomp out their rights to press or free speech. We are trying to control how people think and doing that will lead to tremendous oppression. Yes we can oppress folks in other ways and still allow them to have religious freedom. But the removal of religious freedom, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to other types of violations of human rights.

So I am going to remain a voice for religious freedom. I will be that voice wherever I am at and use whatever resources at my disposal. I believe that God has just given me more resources for this task. At the end of this summer, I will leave the University of North Texas to take a position at the Institution for Studies of Religion (ISR) and the department of Sociology at Baylor University. At ISR there is an emphasis on the promotion of religious freedom and there I will have contact with some activists and politicians who share that concern. This emphasis played a role in why I accepted this position. As such, I am ecstatic to soon be in a position to provide my services for future efforts at promoting religious freedom.

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  • BernankeIsGlutenFree

    Can I make a confession? I’m not really sure what religious freedom is even supposed to be. How does it actually differ from the other freedoms you say it protects, and how does it go above and beyond the freedoms we recognize for other beliefs and ideologies? Like, you say that religious freedom has obvious limits (we wouldn’t let someone sacrifice a child just become their faith tells them to &c.), but how far away are those limits from the freedom of expression we would just extend to everyone generally? Is there anything at all we should allow a religious person to do because of their faith that we wouldn’t allow anyone else to do for any other reason? If so, why, and how do you justify stopping where you do? If not, then does the term “religious freedom” have any utility at all? I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m just really confused.

    • georgeyancey

      Thanks for the honest questions. I would see religious freedom as akin to the freedom of thought. In other words to believe whatever we want about reality and morals. That is why to control that you have to control so much more. And of course it extends to those who do not have a traditional religious belief or do not believe in the supernatural. As far as limits I would say as expansive as possible. If you are directly harming or defrauding someone else then your religious freedom does not cover that. Otherwise you should be able to live out your faith. That is where I would draw the line but of course others may disagree with that.

      • BernankeIsGlutenFree

        Okay, thanks. So the way it reads to me is that freedom of religion is just an instantiation of something more general, like “freedom of conscience” or something. In that case, I think it comes into serious conflict with a lot of the social privileges we hold dear, including what a lot of people seem to think should be protected by freedom of religion itself. Do I have the right to refuse to rent out a house I own to a (hetero) Christian couple if I believe that christianity is patriarchal and exploitative of women, or would that violate that couple’s freedom of religion? What if a bank refuses to make loans to Jews because they have white nationalist convictions? What about refusing to hire someone based on their faith, so long as I have strong ideological commitments against it?

        • georgeyancey

          As we communicate the city of San Antonio is refusing to allow Chick-Fil-A to open in their airport because they do not like their support of religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage. I find that people are selective in their outrage of people using their freedom of conscience. So that is why I would want as wide of latitude as possible. I could answer each of your hypotheticals and they would not be the same answer for each. But rather let’s give each other as much latitude as possible and apply that to everyone, and not merely those we agree with.

          • BernankeIsGlutenFree

            I don’t really understand how people could not be selective in their judgement of the actions of others. Apart from being selective, the only options are getting outraged at literally everyone or at literally nobody. Maybe I’ve misunderstood what you’re trying to say?

            As for giving latitude to everyone, I think that clearly leads to bad outcomes as illustrated by the examples I gave. There are three possibilities: we treat each other equally, everyone gets to discriminate against everyone else to some universally acceptable extent for any reason they want, or some ideologies get special treatment. I’m not going to give religious beliefs (no, not even Christian ones) special treatment, so either Christians get opened up to the same discrimination they want to enact on non-Christians, queer people &c., or Christians retain the protections you currently enjoy (like the right to not be denied housing just because they’re Christian) but lose the right to enact that same kind of discrimination on others such as myself, even if they really really want to.

            Losing the right to discriminate whilst retaining your protections from those same forms of discrimination is absolutely not a loss of religious freedom in any sense unless you define religious freedom as something other than those very protections, as the right to special treatment. Can you think of a reason why my standards are unfair, or do you agree with me?

          • georgeyancey

            You miss my point. I want the same freedom for everyone and stated as much. Not looking for special treatment. In fact I pointed out that in San Antonio right now it is the Christians who do not enjoy public accommodation. And in fact it is even worse because it is the government engaging in discrimination. My position is for individuals they have a right to live out their faith. What that looks like will vary in situation after situation. I see more protection for someone doing artist work, like decorating a cake, that for supplying housing. But even that latter example may need nuance as there is a big difference in renting a house and renting out a room in one’s own house. The blanket no discrimination too often collapses so that people who want to drive a person out of business for not wanting so serve a same sex wedding are the same ones silent when the government want to deny a business the right to operate because the support the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. If we respect each other’s rights to conscience then we can find a fair system to apply to everyone. If we allow other rights to trump freedom of religion and conscience then we get the crazy situation we have today.

          • BernankeIsGlutenFree

            > I want the same freedom for everyone and stated as much. Not looking for special treatment.

            You have to understand that almost every Christian who wants special treatment claims to not want special treatment. They just interpret the social and political dominance of their own ideology as equality, and actual equality as persecution. I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing, just that I can’t take your word for it. I have to look at the actual specific policies you’re advocating for and make a judgement based on that. Let’s look at your example:

            > In fact I pointed out that in San Antonio right now it is the Christians who do not enjoy public accommodation

            Do you think people have a right to demand that governments contract them for services regardless of their beliefs? Certainly I agree that the government shouldn’t be allowed to say “we refuse to do business with Christians” or something like that, but that’s not the same thing as saying “we refuse to do business with homophobes”. Just because a particular homophobic corporation happens to cite Christianity as its justification doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t imply a violation of religious freedom. If a city refused to do business with racists and a company who donated to anti-miscegenist organizations citing scripture as their justification lost out because of that, do you think that would violate religious freedom and that the city should be forced to allow them to do business on their property, or do you think that Christian beliefs regarding queer people are a special case and deserve more charity than the racist’s do? Your answer to this question will go a long way to determining for me whether you want special treatment or not.

            > I see more protection for someone doing artist work, like decorating a cake

            Sure, I agree. A cake decorator should be allowed to refuse any message or decoration they want. Nobody can force a baker to put a hammer and sickle on a cake if the baker doesn’t want. If, however, they decide that a certain aesthetic is acceptable, they must provide identical cakes to any and all customers to the best of their ability. You can’t bake a cake for a white couple and then refuse to bake a cake that looks absolutely identical for an interracial couple just because you hate race mixing, since you clearly just have a problem with the person buying the cake, not with your artistic input to the cake itself. Make sense?

            > The blanket no discrimination too often collapses so that people who want to drive a person out of business for not wanting so serve a same sex wedding

            No business has any right to anyone’s patronage, and it does not violate anyone’s freedom to avoid buying from a homophobic business. Neither does anyone have the right to be free from criticism, so criticizing a homophobic business does not violate their rights either.

            > If we allow other rights to trump freedom of religion and conscience then we get the crazy situation we have today.

            I don’t think you’ve established that the situation today is “crazy”. If “crazy” is businesses having to serve all comers without prying into their sex lives or religious beliefs and customers being free to buy from whomever they choose, then sure. But why would I think that’s crazy?

          • Otto No Collusion Goat

            San Antonio is violating Chick-Fil-A’s free speech rights. Government can’t discriminate against contractors for political activity they engage in or views they express, and that would include donating to an “anti-miscegenist” organization.

          • BernankeIsGlutenFree

            So long as you’re consistent. By that standard a municipal government should also be forced to give due consideration to a company who is actively trying to make the practice of Christianity illegal, and if you’re fine with that then I don’t really have any major qualm with your beliefs.

            Luckily that doesn’t mean I have to accept them for myself. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society after all, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t include forcing governments to give cash away to bigoted organizations, thank God.

          • georgeyancey

            I have shown how a Christian oriented company is being punished in the public accommodation’s by the government while there is eagerness to punish a cake decorator who does not want to work a same-sex marriage and you accuse me of wanting special treatment. Sorry that dog does not hunt. If you cannot see the error of such a statement then I have to conclude that you are not asking honest questions but trying to engage in some sort of rhetoric trap. Or you cannot accept the reality that Christians can be mistreated in our society. I have already blogged on that. Either way I am not going to keep hitting my head against this wall. Have a good Memorial Day weekend.

          • BernankeIsGlutenFree

            In both cases because they’ve decided to do something bigoted, not simply because they’re Christian. The companies have decided to discriminate against others based on some fundemental aspect of their character, and in return receive less patronage because of that behaviour, which is, again, not the same thing as receiving less patronage just because they’re Christian. I think this is why you’ve made such an effort to avoid addressing any of the analogous scenarios I’ve presented, which is unfortunate, but also sadly what I expected.

            > Sorry that dog does not hunt.

            That’s a great turn of phrase that I’ve never heard before. I’m going to steal it if you don’t mind.

            > If you cannot see the error of such a statement then I have to conclude that you are not asking honest questions but trying to engage in some sort of rhetoric trap.

            What I’m trying to do is puzzle out a coherent set of ethical principles regarding discrimination by presenting hypotheticals and looking for inconsistencies that we can work together to resolve. That’s not a trap, it’s just applied ethics. I’m sorry if it seems otherwise to you.

            > Or you cannot accept the reality that Christians can be mistreated in our society.

            I’m sure they can be. I’m just not convinced that any of the examples you’ve given me constitute discrimination on the basis of religion against Christians. That is, unless you think that homophobic bigotry is always and everywhere a fundemental and irreducible feature of Christianity, in which case I would say that you’re both mistreating and slandering Christians to a pretty extreme extent yourself.

            > Have a good Memorial Day weekend.

            I’m not American, but thank you for the sentiment.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    Congratulations on your new job. Sincerely.

    • georgeyancey


  • Maine_Skeptic

    “My fear is the practice to dismissing religious freedom, of making it a hyphenated term as some have done, is to reduce our ability to live according to our faith more than is warranted.”

    Within that quote, you linked to an ACLU fundraiser related to abortion rights, which calls into question what you mean by “religious freedom.” I understand what you said in your comment below about letting rights be as expansive as possible without harming others, and I agree. The problem is that your brethren think they are being harmed whenever they’re not given exclusive privilege. “Expansive freedom” means nothing when one group’s religious feelings are seen as more important than everyone else’s basic human rights.

  • JustNTyme

    Actually, the term “Islamophobia” is absurd. A “phobia” is an irrational fear. Given the long and bloody history of Islam – starting with its founder – fear of Islam is not irrational, it is completely rational. Anyone who boards a plane that is carrying a group of young Middle Eastern-looking males is going to be extremely nervous during that flight, yes, even the leftists who claim they are not “Islamophobic.” When people shuffle through the airport carrying their shoes in their hands, it isn’t because Southern Baptists or Catholics are likely to blow up the plane, it’s because of that “religion of peace” that (according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) has no connection at all with terrorism – but everyone knows that it DOES. America has descended into the surreal – we live under the real and constant threat of jìhadi violence, and yet we are told that Muslims are peace-loving creatures and that the real threat comes from the Evil Conservative Christians, bent on establishing a “theocracy.” It’s as if we’re in a house swarming with cobras, but the left tells us, “Watch out for moths, they’re killers.”