Several years ago, I enjoyed lunch with a Muslim friend in Chicago that I hadn’t seen in years. When the food arrived, I asked if I could pray. He said yes, and I did. About thirty minutes into our meal and our conversation about careers and families, my friends changed the topic.
“I want to thank you for praying in Jesus’ name before we ate,” he said.
“I’m a Christian,” I replied. “That’s what we do.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Most Christians I meet don’t mention Jesus. They think it will offend me or make me uncomfortable, but when they hide their Christian identity it means I have to hide my Muslim identity. We all have to pretend we’re not who we are. When you prayed to Jesus it communicated that I was safe. I didn’t have to hide my Muslim faith with you.”
Our culture doesn’t do diversity well. Despite all of our rhetoric about tolerance and inclusion, what we really want is a public square where people leave their identities—especially their religious identities—at home to avoid any offense.
We subtly communicate that religion is a private matter and out of respect for our neighbors we should only engage in the most wishy-washy pleasantries about “faith” and “God” if the occasion requires it.
What my Muslim friend revealed during our lunch, however, was a longing to be authentic; to carry his full identity into the public square without fear. Isn’t that what we Christians want, too? Isn’t that what a free republic like the United States was created to give its citizens—the right to practice our faiths without fear or suppression?
This desire, which is shared by people of all faiths, is why Christians must think more carefully about religious liberty. A new report by Barna has found that concern over religious freedom is growing among Americans, and no one is more worried than evangelicals. 77 percent of evangelicals say religious liberty is worse today than a decade ago. That figure has risen 17 percent since 2012.
The Barna reports reveals a curious discrepancy, however. While evangelicals are the most concerned about religious freedom, they are also the most likely to say, “Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in the U.S.,” and the least likely to say, “no one set of values should dominate the country.” To say that religious freedom is important, but my religion should be given preference, is like Henry Ford saying a customer can have a car painted in any color he wants as long as it is black. Barna’s study seems to indicate that evangelicals have a muddled understanding of religious liberty at best, or a total misunderstanding of it at worst.
In Barna’s 2012 study, which uncovered this same discrepancy, David Kinnaman wrote:
“The research raises the question as to why Christians are so much more concerned about religious freedom than any other group…. What is it Christians are trying to protect and why do they feel under threat? Is this an example of a historically privileged group losing some of their privileges? Is it possible that evangelicals are interpreting their loss of religious privilege as loss of religious freedom?”
I have a suspicion that Kinnaman’s questions are on target. There are loud evangelical voices demanding religious freedoms (or privileges) for Christians, but at the same time, they are calling for Muslims to be denied those same freedoms. What these nearsighted leaders don’t understand is that limiting the rights of some religions will eventually limit the rights of all religions. If we want the ongoing freedom to pray, and preach, and worship, and proselytize, then we must defend our Muslim neighbors’ rights to de precisely the same thing.
I believe James Madison did a great favor to the Christian faith when he penned the First Amendment. Madison understood that in order for true religion to thrive, for peoples’ affections to be stirred for their Creator, they needed freedom. Freedom from state coercion. Freedom of conscience. Freedom of practice. Freedom of speech. Freedom to accept religion or reject it. When religion, particularly faith in Christ, is mandated by the state, it inoculates the population from the power of the Gospel. It lulls them into thinking they are truly of Christ when in fact they are not. Madison’s writings on the topic reveal that the First Amendment was his attempt at protecting the purity of religion from the coercive power of the state, not simply the other way around.
I want to live in a society where Muslims enjoy every freedom to believe, think, practice, and promote their faith, because only in such a society will Christians be free to do the same.
Some evangelical leaders say we should blame our Muslim neighbors for the rising threats to religious freedoms in the United States, but the rhetoric they employ is not only unhelpful it also misrepresents religious freedom as an exclusive privilege for Christians. Followers of Christ, perhaps more than any others, should advocate that all people be free to believe, worship, think, and preach without fear of persecution. Because where this freedom exists not only are religious communities more likely to coexist in peace, but I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is more likely to thrive.
As Christians we cannot, and should not, demand that everyone share our beliefs. But we can, and should, demand that everyone share our freedom.
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