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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