Religious Freedom: An Invitation To Wash Some Feet This Election Season

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The current campaign season has elicited negative reactions in many people and institutions of faith. Recent encounters within my own circle of friends illustrate two common responses. One friend told me he had gotten into the habit of watching media coverage of the presidential candidates incessantly. He described it this way: “I just can’t not look. It is like watching news coverage of a car pileup. It’s possibly grotesque and scary, yet somehow mesmerizing.” Another friend and young mother has taken the opposite approach. She told me how she had completely disengaged from staying politically informed, going so far as disconnecting her wi-fi: “We have little kids. Even if I’m just reading some online article, and they can’t hear or see anything, they see it on my face--my negative reaction to an endless stream of negativity from both sides.” 

These reactions are not unique to my peers. People all over the country are trying to discern what positive political engagement looks like in this divisive and polarized time. Yet they are finding themselves at a loss, feeling like their only options are tuning out completely or getting caught up in an endless cycle of political mud-slinging.

Issues of faith and religious freedom have been caught up in this too. The presidential candidates have said little to lay out a positive vision for how our increasingly diverse society can constructively live with our differences. Instead, religious freedom has been talked about in narrow ways, with the focus mostly on singular issues rather than the larger complex challenges presented by upholding religious freedom for individuals and institutions, in private and in public life.

Our American society is becoming increasingly diverse with seemingly disparate individuals and institutions that have incongruous interests, conflicting orienting belief-systems, and polarized values. Currently, religious freedom does not readily appear to be a unifying force. Yet our increasingly plural society presents a rarified opening for us to reframe religious freedom and its unique capacity to bring about social change-- for those of faith and those of no faith, for the privileged and the disadvantaged, for the individual and the institution. 

This does not mean one clear path or public policy would solve all of society’s differentiated challenges. It does mean, however, that the demands of public justice should compel us to create space for the many diverse non-governmental civil society organizations, from churches, to schools, to businesses, to faith-based service organizations, that provide for the varying needs of a pluralist, and often divided, population.

Religious freedom can and should be part of the solution to our polarization and the growing impatience with unresolved issues of injustice. For that constructive role and hopeful vision, religious freedom’s inherent insistence on respecting our neighbor, and not just defending our own rights, has to be applied. 

In light of this, let us explore a framework for considering religious freedom that has been largely absent in this election cycle. It is a way of thinking about, practicing, and engaging civically with religious freedom that upholds principled pluralism, one of the core commitments of the Center for Public Justice. 

Protecting Religious Freedom Advances Public Justice

Principled pluralism recognizes that American society is comprised of diverse political, ideological, and religious communities. Religious freedom embodied through principled pluralism embraces the responsibility to uphold the freedom of people and institutions of other faiths, and of other orienting identities and worldviews. As Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies wrote in their recent book Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations, “A true commitment to diversity involves allowing the differing groups present in society the freedom to express and practice their beliefs and to try to convince others to their point of view while living and working together in a spirit of mutual respect.”

Religious freedom in the context of principled pluralism is religious freedom that doesn’t deserve scare quotes when it is being covered in the news. Religious freedom in the context of principled pluralism maintains that with the freedom to live out one’s own religious beliefs and practices, one must protect the freedom of others with different beliefs and practices to do the same.

Religious freedom for individuals gives flesh to public policies that, for example, promote the rights of a Muslim woman to wear a hijab in her workplace equally with the rights of a Jewish man to wear a yarmulke and a Christian woman to wear a cross necklace.

This example is easy to envision. It involves individuals practicing their faith (exercising their religious freedom) through concrete, explicitly religious displays on their bodies. Yet religious freedom is both more complex and, arguably, more compelling, when applied to situations that challenge our notions of how to balance seemingly disparate convictions in a diverse society.

An exercise of religion is not always done by an individual. It isn’t always explicitly religious at all, for that matter. Faith-full acts, done individually or institutionally, may indeed look quite mundane or carry no obvious religious significance. Consider Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. To those who didn’t know him or understand the greater meaning of this gesture, it appears he was doing a rather lowly task reserved for a servant. Yet for Jesus and those who follow Him, this act is pregnant with all the spiritual weight of the Gospel itself. The redemption and hope of the Good News was literally given flesh and blood in the incarnate form of Jesus Christ, and yet Jesus goes beyond this and bends down to humble himself in service and loving sacrifice to others.

This embodiment of grace demonstrated to others through the simple physical act of washing the disciples’ feet shows us the richness of faithful meaning behind a seemingly lowly, nonreligious action. Today, many followers of Christ are called likewise to engage in acts of faith that are imbued with deep religious significance, but appear at their surface to be indistinguishable from other nonreligious acts.

Religious freedom remains a challenging, complex, and continually evolving issue.

So how can Christians pursue positive political engagement that both advances religious freedom and upholds public justice? Here are two key questions that citizens should be asking as they weigh these issues on a local, state, and federal level.

How is a particular public policy or person seeking public office promoting the equal treatment of citizens and institutions in both the personal and public practice of religion?

The Center for Public Justice (CPJ) Guideline on Religious Freedom states: “The religion of some people may be only a matter of worship or private conviction. The religion of others may entail obligations to serve their neighbors, educate their children, and carry out their work and civic duties as part of an entire way of life in obedience to God.” This means that citizens should not just pay attention to public officials or government policies that support protecting religion in the context of a home or house of worship. The freedoms to worship, study Scripture or other religious texts, and enjoy fellowship privately or in the context of a faith community of co-religionists in essential, and religious freedom is often tied to public policies or public positions supporting the exercise of faith in one’s own home or place of worship. But the inherent character of religious freedom means that the protection of faith in the personal realm alone is inadequate.

Therefore, citizens should consider how public policies and promises of public officials take into account protecting the exercise of faith in the public square. This may mean supporting public policies that promote a diversity of educational options for families, such as treating faith-based schools on an equal playing field with other nonreligious or government-run schools.

This may also mean supporting policies that give faith-based social services agencies the capacity to compete equally with nonreligious organizations for government grants.  As CPJ’s Guideline on Welfare states: “[Government] should grant faith-based organizations the same opportunities offered to all other service groups and protect their distinctive religious character if they become its partners. Government can best honor the religious liberty of persons and families that need…assistance by ensuring that a variety of providers with different philosophies of assistance are available.”

Supporting religious freedom in all its fullness and complexity means exhorting public officials not to limit this essential First Amendment freedom to one dimension. It means urging government officials to protect religious freedom for individuals and institutions of all faiths, both personally and in the public square, for acts that are explicitly religious (prayer and worship) and for acts that appear nonreligious (serving our neighbors, educating our children). This does not amount to public funding of explicit religious practices like prayer, but rather advances a level playing field for organizations of all faiths or no faith to compete for government funding based on the merits of their programs.

CPJ’s Guideline on Political Community states: “Christian efforts to promote a just society must… include the aim to protect the religious freedom and other civil rights of all citizens – not only in their worship communities, but also in education, welfare services, and more.” In light of this, how is a particular public policy or person seeking public office balancing the advancement of religious freedom with the protection of minorities who have experienced unjust treatment?

We are living in a moment of great ambiguity and polarization over how to balance religious freedom with emerging efforts to protect those facing discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

Christians should ask those running for public office how they propose to protect everyone’s public-legal rights, especially those of minorities who may have faced unjust treatment. Any list of minorities facing unjust treatment would include Muslim individuals, communities, and organizations, as well as LGBT individuals, who in many areas of the country can legally get married on a Saturday and lose their job at a secular employer on a Monday. Interestingly, in many areas of the country that are becoming more aware of the injustices long suffered by LGBT people, faith-based social services organizations like Catholic Charities, who have long specialized in serving disadvantaged communities, are ironically finding themselves in that same minority category. In areas such as Massachusetts and D.C, Catholic Charities has been forced out of providing services like adoption because they provide such services based on what their faith teaches is best for children, and those beliefs have become increasingly unpopular.

Christians should consider how the passage of SOGI nondiscrimination protections in concert with robust religious protections at a local, state, and federal level would have an undeniably positive and tangible impact on the LGBT community. In fact, as Christians concerned with upholding public justice, we should affirmatively support such policy measures that carefully balance advancing religious freedom with protecting LGBT individuals from unjust discrimination in areas such as housing and employment.

Legislation that carefully balances the protection of religious minorities with the protection of sexual minorities has been passed in Utah. LGBT rights supporters and supporters of religious freedom both decided to do unto their very different neighbor as they would have done unto themselves. LGBT people are now protected from sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in housing and employment. Religious organizations have gained protections in these laws, maintaining their capacity to employ individuals whose religious beliefs and practices make them capable of fulfilling their employers’ religious mission.

Religious freedom remains a challenging, complex, and continually evolving issue. Beyond holding any specific policy position, we are called, as Christian citizens, to support a vision of public justice that upholds the freedom of all individuals and institutions to fully embody their faith in public life. This vision compels Christians to resist rhetoric that limits religious freedom to one sphere of life or one religious identity.

Religious freedom has to apply to the Muslim as well as the Christian. Religious freedom has to allow for service to the stranger as well as service to the co-religionist. And, for Christians especially, religious freedom should always be pursued in the spirit of sacrificial, service-oriented love that Christ demonstrated and exhorts us to in John 13:14-15: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

 -Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Equipping and Membership at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of the Center for Public Justice. She holds a JD from the University of Michigan and is a licensed attorney by the State Bar of Michigan.