By Chelsea Langston Bombino
This article was originally published by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, an initiative by the Center for Public Justice (CPJ).
In our current cultural and political moment, religious freedom in the United States is not generally regarded as a contribution to the common good. Nor is it thought of by most of the American public as a vital aspect of our pluralist democracy. Nor is religious freedom discussed as an invitational call, extended to all groups and all peoples throughout our diverse nation.
Yet religious freedom, as an ideal, is all of these. Open to all. Inclusive. A necessary precondition to the positive unfolding of the human condition.
Religious freedom gives us the space to be human, in every sense of the word. Yet, somehow, we have lost these understandings. It didn’t happen overnight: the American imagination toward religious freedom has slowly declined, almost unnoticeably.
We have arrived at the place where, undeniably, religious freedom is not broadly seen as a public virtue. More often it is encumbered by the baggage of negative stories and associations, and identified with polarization and partisanship. We cannot go back and make it not so.
As advocates for religious freedom–proponents for the freedom to express our God-given gifts and capacities in the sacred name of our Creator–we can resolve to take positive steps to help expand the public’s imagination of what religious freedom represents in this new year.
I would like to suggest three resolutions that I believe are essential in this moment.
Commit to Steward Relationships Across Difference
There are certain commitments that we should make or renew that are essential for this moment. We must be determined to engage with others more deeply across boundaries of difference–and then act upon it. This applies to political, religious and cultural difference. Such a commitment requires that we not apply easy but shallow labels (like “bigot” or “snowflake”) on those with whom we have genuine differences. It is easy to dismiss a political philosophy, a cultural perspective, a system of religious belief which we do not share. Yet the advancement of religious freedom requires that we work together with others across real differences. That doesn’t mean we have to deny the difference or fall into common tropes such as “we all believe in peace” or “all roads lead to the same thing.” They decidedly do not.
Yet all roads are part of the human condition, and at the heart of the human condition is a search for sacred meaning in all of life’s experiences. It is essential that we get to know those with whom we disagree about life’s most basic truths, especially if we are to ask them to come alongside us and defend the space for us to disagree and live out our own commitments in the public square.
Many religious freedom advocates are followers of Christ. For those of us for whom this is true, we have a sacred imperative to love God by seeing Christ in everyone. The act of loving our neighbors as ourselves is, for many religious freedom advocates, a religious exercise itself. It is also easier said than done.
It is much more comfortable to make assumptions based on news stories or statistics about what those neighbors who are unlike ourselves are thinking and feeling, rather than directly ask them. Stereotypes are easy to believe. But it is harder to believe them when you know the actual human being who bears the image of our Creator.
How can we protect other individuals’ and other groups’ religious freedom if we have so “other-ized” them that we have denied, albeit inadvertently, aspects of their humanity? We cannot protect what we do not understand or that of which we have no knowledge. Yet we can (and must!) protect that with which we do not agree. We cannot, in good faith, expect our civic neighbors to protect our religious freedom, if we have not taken the time to understand their animating worldviews and what legal structures they may need to fulfill their beliefs in practice.
2. Identify and Celebrate Religious Freedom in Art, Poetry and Culture
Religious freedom is not only deeply misunderstood in today’s culture; it is often not even considered in public life. A concept dismissed outright cannot be a muse for artists, visionaries, innovators, policy makers or culture shapers. And yet, religious freedom is a most necessary prerequisite for how we live out our humanity. As creatures of a sacred creator, whether you believe that to be Christ or an unknowable divine creative force, humans are designed to create. From the beginning of time, humans created things: fire, languages, inventions, art and more. More than just a hobby that brings self-satisfaction, creating is in the very fabric of our DNA, and it offers a blueprint for the similarities in nearly every human civilization that has ever existed.
We all seek a sacred being. We all educate the next generation, through instruction and character formation. We all develop systems to live together in peace. We all engage in the necessary tasks of survival: making food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our families. And we all seek beauty and meaning in all these other elements of life.
In most every people group that ever existed, we see elements of daily life intimately connected with the sacred stories they tell themselves about why they are here, how they ought to live and where they are going.
Mary Oliver, in her poem “I Will Try,” writes, “[I am] a woman whose love has vanished, / who thinks now, too much, of roots and dark places, / where everything is simply holding on. / But this too, I believe, is a place / where God is keeping watch…”
The spaces of “roots and dark places,” Oliver writes, are still God’s. They are sanctified for the divine. Oliver’s poetry is filled with simple, accessible, observant descriptions of the particularity of the natural world. She sees a red bird in the winter sky. She walks her dog in the early morning. She remembers a river from her childhood. Yet her poetry always has whispers of a divine creative source behind the mundane elements of life. Mary Oliver was not, as far as can be known, a Christian. Yet that is beside the point. Her words reflect what is already imprinted on every human heart: the desire to seek the sacred in all things.
She opens the poem with these words: “I will try. / I will step from the house to see what I see / and hear and I will praise it.” We all need religious freedom in order to step forth into the ordinary elements of our lives and discern in them their divine import.
Religious freedom is the empty canvas upon which the artist paints an image of himself convening with God. Religious freedom makes possible even the means through which entertainers or artists import religious meaning in ways we may find offensive.
How can you find the echoes of religious freedom in the literature, art, songs and other cultural communicators of beauty and wonder around you? It is not something we do enough, as advocates for this sacred freedom. How can we challenge Americans, and young people especially, to have a broader vision of religious freedom if we aren’t first more intentional about pointing out all the elements of human cultural creation that would not exist without religious freedom?
3. Make Religious Freedom Personal Where Possible
Advocates of religious freedom are, as a general rule, very good at advocating for their own religious freedom when their convictions are clearly violated. The advocate could be someone whose faith tells him he cannot go to war, or a doctor whose faith prohibits him from performing an abortion, or even a religious employer whose faith-based mission requires employing people who share the same animating worldview.
Yet there are many ways, in our individual and communal lives, that religious freedom is embodied. Many of these expressions of religious freedom, in fact most, are not currently under political, legal or cultural threat. Yet, we do not give voice to these sacred acts as expressions of religious freedom. We do not regularly call them out as such.
When we enroll our children in a faith-based childcare, we don’t usually frame it as, “I am exercising my religious freedom to send my child to a religious educational institution.” When we engage in advocacy for the stranger, the orphan, the poor, because we are fulfilling God’s clear call to do so, we don’t always make explicit, “My advocacy is a sacred act, brought to you by religious freedom.” We are not always vocal about our activities motivated by religious freedom, and yet we can and should be. These are sacred acts in and of themselves.
First Corinthians 10:31 tells us, “So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Likewise, Deuteronomy 11:18-19 tells us, “Fix these words of mine [God’s words] in your hearts and minds, tie them as a sign on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, speaking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
What are the ways in which we can start telling a broader, more accurate and comprehensive story about how every element of our lives requires the freedom to incarnate our sacred beliefs? How can we communicate that, for many believers across spiritual traditions, every activity holds the potential to be a lived expression of worship for our Creator?
How can we, as advocates for religious freedom, better express the absolute necessity of this sacred freedom in every area of life – in private and in public, as individuals and as groups, in acts that are explicitly sacred and in those that seem mundane, or even profane?
My prayer is that your own life experiences, your lived human condition, will provide the answers for your unique embodiment of religious freedom. Let the particularity of your God-given situation give you the fuel you need to help expand the notion of what religious freedom represents and means in America today.
Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of the Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. Sacred Sector is a learning community for faith-based organizations and emerging leaders within the faith-based nonprofit sector to integrate and fully embody their sacred missions in every area of organizational life.