Religious Freedom and Religious Intolerance
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Throughout the western world, most especially in the United States, battle lines are being drawn over the role of religion in society and government. Once, religion was considered one of those topics one simply didn’t discuss openly, it was a private matter; but now, public figures, especially politicians, wear their religions on their sleeves, and so too do an ever-increasing number of people. As I write this, it’s September here in the U.S. a few weeks from now the fighting over nativities on town hall lawns will begin.
What’s clear is that the growing religion-wars bring out the worst in people, but what’s equally clear is that none of it is necessary. The reason it happens is that people draw inferences from small things and turn them into major struggles.
Take, for instance, the aforementioned annual “Christmas Wars” in the U.S. Christians want to put nativities up on town hall lawns, have public-school kids perform Christmas pageants, and many other things. All involve government, usually at the municipal level, getting behind some Christmas (Christian) symbol or activity. A corollary battle takes place in non-governmental venues; for instance, when department stores tell their employees not to say “Merry Christmas” during the holiday period in order not to offend non-Christians.
Christians see Christmas symbols in governmental entities as a natural fit. They’re the majority, after all, and Christianity has been the prevailing religion though the country’s history. In their view there’s nothing wrong with putting up Christmas symbols in government venues; Christianity is part of the U.S. and that’s just the way it is. Besides, Christians have “freedom of worship,” so why shouldn’t this happen? Christmas is part of Christian worship, so why should Christians be prevented from celebrating it however they see fit?
For Christians, the matter of stores telling employees not to say “Merry Christmas” is an insult to them and to their Lord: not to acknowledge Christ, during His holiday, is a slap in His face and theirs. It’s just not right, in their minds, and it’s not acceptable. The stores’ effort not to offend non-Christians is ironically something they find offensive, themselves.
But to look at it from the other side … Christmas, with all of its splash and commercialism (which even many Christians dislike), is an affront to everyone who doesn’t worship Christ. Every year it gets rammed down the throats of the minority who don’t observe it. And when their government participates in it, a government to which they contribute taxes, they dislike it. They also dislike it when everyone else acts as if they observe Christmas, by wishing them a “Merry Christmas.”
What we have, then, is a recipe for societal warfare, and like clockwork, we in the U.S. get our fill of it, every year.
When I said earlier that it was unnecessary, I meant exactly that. It’s possible for Christians to enjoy Christmas, and non-Christians to avoid it. The problem lies in the fact that the U.S. is so overwhelmingly Christian. It’s easy for Christians to convince themselves that what they want is acceptable, and simultaneously make it harder for non-Christians to avoid Christmas. If the numbers were equal, or close to it, there would be less of a problem.
The law of the land presents a complication, one which is conflicted and only serves to stoke the fires of either side rather than cool them. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution promises freedom of religion, but also forbids passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The former is seized upon by Christians as granting them permission to put Christmas anywhere they please (since they have “freedom of religion”); the latter is seized by non-Christians as forbidding the admixture of religion and government.
For the most part, according to federal court decisions, the latter interpretation has stood, which has only fostered resentment on the part of Christians, who feel trod upon; some go so far as to believe their entire religion is under attack and liable to be outlawed. A legal complication of “freedom of religion” which has further exacerbated this “Christian alienation” feeling is a corollary principle, that of “freedom from religion,” as established in the U.S. by the Supreme Court decision in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963).
This annual conflict is merely one manifestation of a much bigger and widespread tug-of-war between religious freedom and religious tolerance. One of the most crucial aspects of Christianity is that it is universal, that is, meant for everyone. While Christian denominations and sects disagree on many aspects of doctrine and details of belief and organization, one thing they do agree on is something known as “the Great Commission,” which is found in the gospels:
- “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:19)
- And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mk 16:15)
- Repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Lk 24:47)
For Christians, then, carrying Christianity to everyone else is a core element of their beliefs, and a “prime directive” of their religion. While only some Christians have missionary or evangelical tendencies, to most, this means they are not to hide any aspect of their religion, making it open to all, and they presume all will be involved. For them, freedom of religion means being free to throw their religion, and all its trappings, around in whatever way they wish. The more visible, the better, so far as they’re concerned. And since they are the majority, the minority ought to just live with it.
This is, however, almost the very definition of majoritarianism. But in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who condemned “the tyranny of the majority,” U.S. society tends to frown upon this. In response, then, there are those who oppose Christians using government to throw Christmas in everyone’s faces, those who take offense at the presumption by everyone else that they celebrate Christmas, too. Most famously (or infamously?) this position is championed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but other entities have sprung up to do the same, including ad hoc efforts such as that of Michael Newdow.
The annual “Christmas Wars” are only one facet of a much bigger issue, that of Christians ever more relentlessly pushing Christianity into government, and non-Christians reacting against that effort. Since they have numbers on their side, by an overwhelming margin, it’s very likely that if the conflict continues long enough Christians will “win.”
But need it go that far?
The answer, very simply, is “no,” as I mentioned near the beginning. All of this strife is unnecessary. Preventing it is another matter entirely, due to the nature of Christianity itself.
The Great Commission which all Christians honor tells them that their religion is for everyone. For a subset of Christians, it tells them that their religion is imperative for everyone and delivering it to humanity is equally imperative. But for all Christians, it means theirs is the “public religion.” Many believe that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” Exactly what this phrase means is debatable. If one means that the U.S. was founded by a population which was mostly Christian, then it most certainly was a “Christian nation.” If one means, however, as many politicians do, that it was founded upon “Christian principles,” this is a difficult claim to justify. No precedent exists anywhere in Judeo-Christian tradition for a federalist representative republic such as the U.S.; such an entity does not exist in the Bible, nor did it exist in Greco-Roman times when Christianity began, nor did it exist in subsequent Christian history until it was devised here in the late 18th century. The Constitution, the framework on which the country was built, does not claim God, Jesus, or any other metaphysical entity as its founder; rather, its foundation is (famously) “We the People.”
What has happened is that politicians have seized upon the notion of Christianity as the “public religion,” and they’re making it public, whether or not the public wants it public or it was ever meant to be the “public religion.” They’re doing this for their own aggrandizement, of course, as a means of appealing to voters who will be loyal to them in the future, and also as a way of expanding their own power (by giving themselves an additional basis for taking future action). Feeding this is the Great Commission, which makes Christians vulnerable to appeals of this sort. Most are amenable to the idea that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” in the sense that these politicians claim; in the sense which is harder to justify.
Thus, when those same politicians go even further and claim that efforts to stem the tide of religion’s growth within government is an effort to rob Christians of religious liberty or worse, to abolish Christianity completely many Christians go along; they see things such as passing laws based on religious principles, or putting nativity scenes on town hall lawns, as completely justifiable forms of religious expression, regardless of any “separation of church and state.” (In fact, many of them argue that there should be no separation of church and state!) The idea of a “public square” without Christianity fully expressed within it, in both private and public sectors, is alien to them, since they consider theirs the “public religion” which Jesus told them is intended for everyone. They feel religiously threatened, if they cannot do these things.
What’s really happening is that occidental Christians, particularly those in the U.S., have not yet come to grips with the principle of religious tolerance. While most acknowledge the value of religious freedom, due to a history of Christian sects and denominations suppressing and/or oppressing each other, the Great Commission and the notion of Christianity as the “public religion” conflicts with this. Christians’ sentiment for religious tolerance peaked in the Age of Enlightenment, notably in the career of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and Baptist minister, who stated his most eloquent case in the future U.S. for tolerance in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference betweene Truth and Peace (1644) . This has only had a limited effect on the American religious mindset, though. When you get right down to it, because the Great Commission is central to Christianity, this makes bringing Christianity to others a form of worship all by itself which is something that an important legal principle, that of “freedom of religion,” entitles them to do. It also means making Christianity as public as possible, is a form of worship. And it means that everyone is supposed to enjoy their Christian worship and even participate in it, because it’s theirs, too (even if they don’t wish to participate).
At the same time, the U.S. has two competing legal principles, that of “separation of church and state” and “freedom from religion” (which, really, is just a part of “freedom of religion”). Legally, governments setting up religious displays, or the teaching of religion in public schools, are not permissible. And as much as the religious (of whatever sort) are entitled to worship as they want, those who are not religious are entitled not to be forced to engage in worship if they don’t want to, to pay for religious displays with their tax dollars, or have their children forced to participate in religious activities in public schools.
There are only a few possible resolutions to this problem, most of which aren’t attractive. The best would be if Christians in the U.S. somehow integrated the principle of religious tolerance with their own sense of Christian expression. What many Christians don’t understand is that they do not need to force their beliefs on others in order to express their religion; that if they want to celebrate Christmas, they can put nativities on their own lawns or on church property, rather than on government property, with no reduction in their religious freedom. Nativities on private property are just as sacred as those on government property. This is, of course, rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how many Christians seem never to have realized it.
One would think that, since the Christian world has already gone through an Enlightenment and produced men such as Williams and English philosopher John Locke , that the principle of tolerance could, and should, gain more traction in the minds of U.S. Christians. It’s as much a part of our culture as anything else that has contributed to the founding of the U.S.
The problem, however, is that there are politicians, special-interest groups, and pundits who appeal to Christians’ ambient mild fear that their ability to worship and even their religion itself is under attack, and they amplify it beyond all proportion. The politicians are primarily of the “Religious Right”; among the best-known of these are Senators Rick Santorum (PA), Bill Frist (TN), Sam Brownback (KA), as well as President George W. Bush; the majority of Republicans in Congress have at least some allegiance to the “Religious Right,” along with many Cabinet members. Groups which are active in the same issues include Focus on the Family (led by James Dobson), Christian Coalition (led by Roberta Combs), American Family Association (led by Donald Wildmon), and Operation Rescue (led by Troy Newman). Along with these, popular authors have written about a supposed attempt to destroy Christianity; among these are David Limbaugh (Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity ) and John Gibson (The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought ).
With all of this political, social, and religious rhetoric being thrown at them, piled upon a mild sense of having their freedom of religious expression reduced because of efforts to keep religion out of government, it’s no wonder that many U.S. Christians really, honestly believe either that Christmas, or Christianity itself, is under attack and that “secular humanists” are trying to abolish it. One can hardly not expect them not to buy into it, at least to some extent.
The bottom line of this is that Christians’ sentiments are being played upon, in a rather cynical fashion, by politicians, religious leaders, and other assorted power-brokers and propagandists in order to further their own ends. They have lost sight of the fact that keeping religion out of public schools, or nativities off of town hall lawns, in no way diminishes their ability to worship. They do not understand that the fact that there are some in American society who are not Christian, does not threaten them or their religion. They do not understand that the very same “freedom of religion” that allows them to worship in the manner of their choosing, also grants “freedom from religion” to those who do not wish to worship anyone or anything.
If it appears that I’m unfairly placing blame for this conflict on Christians, perhaps I am. The conflict arises due to the inherent Christian conflict between religious tolerance and the Great Commission; if Christianity did not contain this missionary or evangelical belief element, the problem might not exist at all. Also quite obviously, because Christians are in the majority, any solution will fall primarily on them, of necessity; non-Christians can change their behavior but aside from capitulating utterly and converting to Christianity en masse nothing they do can end it.
Rank-and-file Christians are not really to blame for the increasing intolerance in their own midst. It’s been cultivated by politicians and others who use their sentiments as fuel. Christians are essentially being “used” by these people and groups. What U.S. Christians need to understand is that this is being done to them, that they do not need to fall for the idea that any attempt to limit the venues in which they worship equates with an effort to keep them from worshipping altogether.
Enlightenment-age Christianity does have a tradition of tolerance for other beliefs (primarily for competing forms of Christianity). There is no reason this tolerance cannot be restored and granted not only to variant forms of Christianity, as in the days of Williams and Locke, but to non-Christian religions as well as to no religion at all. What needs to happen is for the political interference to be removed; it is this interference which is actually hindering the growth and flourishing of Christianity; efforts to take nativities off of town hall lawns do not harm Christianity in the least.