Front Burner: Freedom of religion? A Christian and an atheist share their views
Introduction by Michael Joe Murphy
Today’s Front Burner — normally a stark point-counterpoint on a contentious or looming issue — breaks precedent with its usual format to ask an intriguing and provocative question: Is common ground between atheism and belief possible?
The answer is a resolute yes: The importance of religious identity and expression — to think, express and act upon what we deeply believe — is a right guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The mutual verdict from both viewpoints may surprise some readers, as the authors come from two very different schools of thought:
David Williamson, co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community, an organization of atheists and humanists.
Danny de Armas, senior associate pastor of First Baptist Church Orlando.
While Jefferson is a hero to secularists, he was not our first separationist. His wall was first imagined more than a hundred years earlier by Roger Williams, founder of America’s first Baptist Church. Williams described a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” To him matters of the church were “too high and holy and thus beyond the competence of the state.”
Whatever the reasoning and whatever our religious belief, America’s religious freedom is worthy of celebration and preservation. The wall needs ongoing maintenance. One way this is done is through dialogue with those whom we disagree. By sitting down together and talking we can begin to understand how religious freedom is differently perceived by those of differing religious perspectives.
When discussing religious freedom, I often hear that “we have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” This “zinger” implies that only the rights of religious people are guaranteed. It ignores the most fundamental part of our First Amendment and does so at a time when society is becoming more and more secular.
No one forces them to go to worship services — except maybe their parents before they reach the “Age of Reason” or the age of resistance. They are not compelled to profess a belief in God — unless they are running for elective office. And the idea that they should pay taxes to support someone else’s house of worship is unheard of — until an “act of God” blows through and hurricane relief funds are up for grabs. Maybe they are not as free from religion as they thought after all.
Our Constitution’s First Amendment makes it clear that we have freedom from religion. It is right there in the first ten words and reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Supreme Court understands the non-Establishment Clause to mean government is prohibited from preferring one religion over another and from preferring religion over non-religion.
It was only after our Constitutional Framers guaranteed freedom from religion that they did the same for freedom of religion. The second clause of the First Amendment is the part everyone remembers. That is the Free Exercise Clause and it ensures government will not “prohibit…free exercise” of religion.
How can you exercise the religion of your choosing if government chooses for you?
Occasionally pious politicians, uninformed civil servants, or overzealous citizens assume their right to “free exercise” means they have a right to use government resources to promote a religious event, support religious organizations, or coerce participation in rituals such as prayer. But no such right exists. The non-Establishment Clause was expressly designed to prevent the machinery of government from being used for the benefit of the church, synagogue, and mosque.
We all agree that a government made up of, by, and for the people should never pick winners and losers when it comes to religion. For this reason alone, no matter our religious belief, no matter whether we believe in god or not, we are all stakeholders in the ongoing conversations about religious freedom and we should all be sure that the only thing sacred on government property is Jefferson’s wall.
David Williamson is a member of clergy, an atheist, co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community, and serves on the Central Florida Commission on Religious Freedom.
Christians have a responsibility to advocate for the free practice of religion by all — without restriction or influence from the government regardless of anyone’s religious persuasion.
Freedom of religion is at the core of our American founding principles. The freedom to practice one’s faith without government infringement is the ideal that drove the Pilgrims to the New World. It is the bedrock on which all our other freedoms rest.
Religious freedom is also foundational to my Christian faith. Jesus never demanded that individuals join his band of followers. He loved people. He invited them. He urged them. But he didn’t take up the sword or enlist the government to “motivate the masses” to follow. Jesus offered people freedom of and from religion and faith.
Since our nation’s inception, Christianity has enjoyed a significant majority in America. Today about 70 percent of Americans classify themselves as Christians, down from about 80 percent in 2008.
Interestingly, only about 17 percent of us attend a house of worship — all faiths included — on any given weekend. It is predicted that in the not-so-distant future Christians will still be the largest faith in the U.S., though no one faith will hold a majority. But Christians do represent a strong majority of Americans today.
Much of today’s rhetoric has led us to believe that the battle for religious freedom is a battle between differing belief systems to see which one will dominate. The issue of religious freedom is not a contest between belief systems. Rather, it is a contest between citizens and their government. I am concerned that some have mistakenly assumed that when other faiths arise or advance it is a threat to our faith or our freedom. I see it as the exact opposite.
Freedom of religion breeds plurality not singularity. I value truth more than I value plurality, but plurality is an indicator of freedom. While I don’t hold that all faiths are equally true, I do hold that all faiths are free to practice. And in fact, the only venue where I can demonstrate my commitment to religious freedom is when I am advocating for another’s freedom to practice their faith freely when their faith is different from mine. If I am only making room for my faith, it is not freedom I am advocating for; it is dominance or authority.
Seeing other faiths practiced in our country should give us hope that Christians will be provided that same freedom to worship even when those in power don’t share our faith. That’s what makes this American experiment so special.
It’s not that we’re a Christian nation. Rather, we’re a country whose government is not aligned with any particular faith. All faiths are on common ground when it comes to practice without fear of restriction or infringement by the government.
I believe Christians in America today have an opportunity — while we remain in the majority — to ensure our government is restricted from engaging in religious activity or attempts to influence religion. We should take steps while we still have influence to limit government intrusion so that we will not be looking for government’s behavior to change after our influence has lessened.
Christians must work to restrict government now to ensure that government will not restrict Christians later. Failure to do so now will be at our peril long term.
Doesn’t it make sense that we would want to treat individuals of other belief systems the same way we would want to be treated if we were them? Jesus taught us to live this way when he said, “…as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”
It is the right thing to do. And I’m certain it’s what Jesus would do.
Danny de Armas is the senior associate pastor at First Baptist Orlando. [He also serves on the Central Florida Commission on Religious Freedom and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.]