By K. Hollyn Hollman, BJC General Counsel
Summer, especially near July Fourth, is a good time for congregations and religious communities to host an annual religious freedom emphasis. In fact, every year the BJC consults with churches and communities on such efforts, hoping that education will prepare them to handle the inevitable controversies that arise in our religiously diverse society. Too often we take our freedom for granted, giving little thought to the big ideas that make our country special. The values protected by the first words of the First Amendment need and deserve attention by those who regularly gather to worship:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Understanding the historical foundations and current interpretations of the religion clauses and other religious freedom laws is an important part of maintaining our country’s freedom. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is always easy. While there are many ways to educate and engage audiences about the ways our laws protect believers and nonbelievers alike, and how the separation of church and state in America has been good for both, it takes hard work. A successful program requires careful planning and review of first principles. We shouldn’t be surprised that there are many specific religious liberty issues that divide us, and not every call to rally on behalf of religious freedom unites or strengthens support for our shared values.
This year we’ve seen a couple of religious freedom campaigns organized on a national scale that I believe have done little to advance understanding or support for religious freedom. Though perhaps successful in grabbing some media attention, the educational value of these efforts seemed to fizzle.
First, there were the “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rallies sponsored by a coalition of anti-abortion groups, followed by the “Fortnight for Freedom” initiated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to span a two week period ending on July 4. Both campaigns included events in multiple cities and aimed to highlight the importance of religious freedom through a variety of means, including large public rallies. Though cast in broad terms of protecting religious freedom, both were fueled by anger toward the Obama administration’s regulation mandating contraceptive coverage in health insurance policies as applied to certain objecting religious employers. Reports from these events illustrate the opportunities and limitations of using “religious freedom” as a rallying cry.
Thousands are said to have gathered in cities across the country for the rallies sponsored by the “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” coalition where leaders focused on the perceived threat to religion of national healthcare legislation. The lack of coherence in the effort’s message, however, was plain. Participants at one such rally were quoted as making the tired and uninformed claim that “they’ve taken prayer and Bible reading out of schools.” Another person quoted on national radio ended a litany of fear-based falsehoods with this unhelpful summary: “It’s just systematic taking-away, and if we sit by and do nothing, then we’ll be like Communist Russia or China where it’s against the law to even go to church.” While these efforts may have generated some energy for some of the groups’ specific political interests, it seems unlikely they had a positive impact on the need to understand and protect religious freedom.
The USCCB’s call to religious freedom action, which encouraged prayers, litanies and church events planned to “help save our religious freedom,” certainly had the potential for unifying Catholics to make a large-scale impact. Responses appear to have varied widely, revealing a greater diversity in opinions than may have been anticipated about the impact of national health care laws on religious freedom. For many people, the link between a religious conviction to avoid contraception use and a government program making the benefit available to those who choose it simply did not seem sufficiently threatening to rally.
While there is much to be gained by rallying support for our country’s shared values, including religious freedom, little is gained when the message focuses on fears that obscure understanding. We should all stand guard for each other’s religious liberty, and sometimes a rally is just what is needed. Rallies, however, are no substitute for the kind of reasoned debate necessary to resolve complex issues of church and state.
A consistent part of the BJC’s mission has been to equip and encourage congregations to learn about the Baptist heritage of religious freedom. Within and beyond Baptist life, we have long provided a variety of resources for those who want to explore the biblical and historical roots of religious freedom as well as the constitutional principles that protect it. (Visit the “resources” section of our website at BJConline.org) Whether planned in conjunction with a patriotic holiday, or out of concern about a current controversy, educational programming on religious liberty in churches plays a significant role in protecting religious liberty. It may also strengthen our ability to rally support for religious freedom in the long run.
From the July/August 2012 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.