Have you noticed lately how the language of “freedom of worship” has cropped up in our political discourse? That sounds like a good thing, something Americans have always stood for. Actually, it represents a shift in our rhetoric from the language of freedom of religion, which is a much broader concept. Why does this matter?
It matters because the concept of ‘freedom of worship’ has to do with simply protecting what one does in religious assemblies and that the state won’t intrude on these or on one’s private practices of religious expression. What it does however is represent a movement toward confining religious protection to religious assemblies and one’s private life. It does not protect the freedom of conscience of religious people (or for that matter those who embrace any philosophical view) in their public life or protect the expression of points of view that are religiously grounded in the public arena.
Progressive evangelical, Jim Wallis, has noted on various occasions, including this interview, that the gospel is personal, but never private. To confine religious expression and practice to houses of worship or one’s private life is essentially to say that in other realms, the state is supreme and that in these realms allegiance to the state, its laws, practices, and ethical standards, transcends one’s religious beliefs. It makes the state, rather than local communities and marketplaces of ideas and commerce, the final arbiter on a whole array of matters. In the past, we have described other societies who do so as tyrannies who violate fundamental human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not similarly confine religious expression and practice to a merely “private” sphere or speak merely of “freedom of worship”. Article 18 states:
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
This declaration argues for freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It recognizes that to ask people to act in ways that violate conscience is a fundamental infringement on human dignity and freedom. It allows people to change their religion or belief without fear of reprisal. And it allows for the public as well as private manifestation of belief not only in teaching and worship, but in practice and observance.
I am not arguing for the establishment or privileging of any religion, least of all my own. Whenever this has occurred it tends to be to the detriment of the religion! Rather, I am contending for the protection of religious conscience, religiously grounded expression of ideas, and religiously informed ethical practice in public life. I would contend that all humans are “religious” in some sense and all have basic worldviews that frame their thinking, expression and ethical practice. Actually, I think the religious versus secular distinction to be false–secularism is also a religious point of view and equally should not be privileged.
What it all comes down to is that language matters. We have enjoyed a rare and wonderful expression of religious freedom and recognition, at least in principle, of the dignity of people, regardless of their beliefs, or other attributes. But such a freedom is not inevitable or inviolable. It can be eroded, redefined, and limited. Those who would use language to do so should be watchful because in this and so many other things, there may be others who use the same tactics even more skillfully. Protecting freedom is messy because it means protecting those we don’t like or agree with, not just ourselves. Yet it seems to me that the alternative is even messier…