Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Religious Freedom

[I wrote this as a sample essay for the city newspaper, but it didn't land me a spot on the panel of community columnists this year.]

Conversations about government and religion too often get stuck on conflicting interpretations of the First Amendment. We can do better by uniting around the goal of religious freedom.

What is religious freedom? According to the Nebraska State Constitution, "All persons have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences." Such statements reflect important past progress compared to Europe's history of religious wars and the oppression of Jews and "heretics," which the Plymouth Pilgrims and so many others came to America to escape.

Today, religion in America is much more than a question of which sort of Christian or Jew a person may be. The Pew Forum's 2008 "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" revealed that about one in five Americans identity as neither Christian nor Jewish, a considerably larger minority than Black Americans. The right to worship "Almighty God" of Jewish scripture is necessary for religious freedom, but insufficient.

Why should the religious majority support freedom of conscience to worship other Gods or not worship any God? First: simple fairness. If you appreciate the government not telling you that Catholic or Baptist is the way to be, you can appreciate the government not telling your neighbors that Christian or Jewish is the way to be. Second: your current freedom deepens when it includes the freedom to believe otherwise. Third: governments have a tendency to bend religious doctrine to the benefit of the state, not the other way around.

Assuming we're all on board with this notion of religious freedom for all, the next step is practical application. I recommend a simple thought experiment:

Imagine if the population of the United States were majority Muslim instead of majority Christian. Assuming you are not a Muslim, how would you want the government to handle matters of religious freedom? If you have children, how would you want schools to handle religion? If you are patriotic, how would you respond to your fellow Americans who think patriotism and Islam are a package deal? Re-run the hypothetical with a majority Hindu or majority Non-religious America.

By roleplaying the perspective of a religious minority, what seemed fair from a privileged position may not look so fair after all. For example, many American Christians see nothing wrong with public school teachers leading students in Christian-style prayer, so long as children can choose to leave the room or quietly refrain. But what if the roles were reversed? If public school teachers in a majority Muslim America led their captive audiences in Muslim-style prayer, would this sit well with Christian parents so long as their children could choose to refrain from joining the class on prayer rugs?

When it comes to religious belief, none of us needs the government on our side. Nor would I want it. I'm much more concerned that you and I both have freedom of conscience as fellow citizens. It won't always be easy to figure out the best way to implement religious freedom, but if we commit to this common goal we can argue the details as friends and neighbors who want to do right by each other.

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