Freedom of Religion & Freedom from Religion

Freedom of Religion & Freedom from Religion August 23, 2018


Rabbi Motti Wilhelm of the Chabad Lubavitch of Oregon spoke of his profound appreciation for the value placed on the freedom of religion in the United States. I interviewed Rabbi Wilhelm today for my world religions class. You could feel the emotion behind his admiration for our nation’s heritage of religious freedom. His respect for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was contagious as we recounted how striking such freedom is when compared to the oppression the Jewish community has experienced in other lands.

Of course, not everyone appreciates religion or religious expression in the U.S. In fact, for some, it is not the freedom of religion that they affirm, but freedom from religion. Those who are antagonistic toward religion may have experienced persecution or oppression by certain religious groups or view religion as inherently regressive and restrictive. One statement that reflects this basic sentiment is found in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: “It is precisely that requirement of shared worship that has been the principal source of suffering for individual man and the human race since the beginning of history. In their efforts to impose universal worship, men have unsheathed their swords and killed one another. They have invented gods and challenged each other: ‘Discard your gods and worship mine or I will destroy both your gods and you!’”

Mention was made above of the view that religion is inherently restrictive. Of course, there are laws, customs and traditions associated with various religions. For Rabbi Wilhelm, such laws are not restrictive, but ultimately liberating for individuals and communities. He shared of how many people feel isolated and lonely today. The relational orientation of his Jewish tradition where individuals study Torah in community frees people from isolation and helps them to flourish. We all need community and accountability to flourish. The Rabbi compared the fruit of community and accountability to a tree growing in a forest, soaring straight to the heavens alongside other trees. Without the other trees surrounding it, the individual tree often grows in a haphazard manner.

The testimonies of religious minorities here in the States, like Rabbi Wilhelm, who prize religious liberty shine new or renewed light on the beauty of religious freedom. I wonder if the consternation many Americans have toward us Evangelicals (the largest religious group in the U.S.), who cry out in support of religious liberty, feel less consternation or perhaps even appreciation for religious minority groups who cherish the freedom of religion. Maybe those who feel consternation when we Evangelicals cry out for religious liberty do so because they think we favor only freedom of religion for Christians, or even a freedom to rule over other religions and non-religious folks alike.

I can also appreciate religious people’s consternation if and when they feel they are not allowed to express their religious views in the West today. Here I call to mind G.K. Chesterton’s words which represent the sentiment of many: “Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” Why might this be the case today?

To return to the prior point, perhaps people are not allowed to mention religion because or when we have not allowed others to believe and discuss their own religious views or views on religion. If that is the case, we must become more diligent to ensure everyone’s religious liberty—freedom to believe or not believe, to share or not share. Those of us who do indeed wish to share our religious views must make sure that we are ensuring others their right to speak, or not speak, whatever the case might be. When such listening is in place as a Christian practice, we may find that others will invite us to share, just as we invite them to express and share their views. We must secure the freedom of all or no one is truly free. When we do not ensure their freedom of religion and freedom from religion, we lose the assurance of our own religious freedom.

The First Amendment is not the only law that affirms freedom of religion. I believe one can find the basis for the freedom of religion in the Golden Rule, which predates the First Amendment by thousands of years and appears in so many faith traditions, including Judaism and Christianity. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you entails granting unto others their religious freedom or freedom from religion, just as you would have them grant religious freedom to you. As ironic or counter-intuitive as it may seem, the best expressions of religion make possible the freedom of religion and freedom from religion for all.

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