We Can't Afford to Let Religious Freedom Slip

Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Religious Liberty. Read other perspectives here.

Just before the start of WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authored the prologue in the Gideon Bible that would be distributed to the Armed Forces as they entered service. He wrote: "As Commander-in-Chief, I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries, men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel, and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength, and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul."

Such strong presidential support for reading a religious book may seem anachronistic today, over seventy years later, where there are numerous calls to exclude religion from anything related to government. Indeed, just in the last few months San Diego was ordered to take down the Soledad cross, tax-free housing for clergy was struck down as unconstitutional, New Jersey banned religious holiday songs for choir students, and the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of legislative prayer.

Despite these numerous controversies, religious practice is still robust in the United States. According to Pew Research, more than 80 percent of Americans are affiliated with a religion, and even among those who are religiously unaffiliated most have some religious beliefs or practices.

Religious freedom is profoundly important to individuals. As Secretary of State John Kerry said "Freedom of religion is a core American value. . . . It's a universal value, and it's enshrined in our Constitution and ingrained in every human heart. The freedom to profess and practice one's faith to believe, or not to believe, or to change one's beliefs—that is a birthright of every human being."

Emphasizing religious freedom as a vital individual right is essential. Our respect for the inherent human dignity of each individual demands that we respect the individual's right to freely live out his or her faith.

But it is also important to remember the value religion provides for society as a whole. When we shift our attention to the benefits religion provides as a public good, then the case for protecting religious freedom becomes even stronger.

Social science makes a strong case for promoting religious freedom. In "Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability," Pat Fagan of the Marriage & Religion Institute summarizes numerous studies showing that individuals who attend religious services more often experience incredible benefits. Those who worship more frequently have better family lives and stronger marriages, are less likely to engage in substance abuse and commit various crimes, reach higher levels of educational attainment, volunteer and donate more to charities, develop better work habits, live longer, are healthier, earn greater income, and enjoy higher levels of well-being and happiness. Clearly, the practice of religion has a strengthening effect on society.

Though religion is often criticized for being a source of social conflict, religious freedom can actually be an important tool for promoting peace. Religious freedom is not about promoting or enshrining any one religion at the expense of others. Rather, religious freedom is about respecting the rights of others to believe and worship according to their own consciences and then to live out those beliefs in their various walks of life. For instance, in a society like ours that respects religious freedom, exercising the right to express your religious beliefs should not result in losing your ability to have a job or run a business—even if others strongly disagree with your beliefs.

Religious freedom does not cause conflict. It instead encourages tolerance and respect for different beliefs. Indeed, Pew Research shows that increases in religious freedom are associated with decreasing social hostilities. Numerous scholars have pointed out that since religious practice often involves practicing faith with others in communities and churches, it enhances social ties and interactions. Religious freedom thus energizes participation in civil society, which in turn supports democracy and economic development.

No wonder religious freedom is often considered our first, most cherished liberty. In addition to its precious value to the individual, religious freedom is an important public good that strengthens all of society. Whether we are religious or not, we all have a personal stake in protecting religious liberty because all of us reap its benefits.

3/28/2014 4:00:00 AM
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