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Religious liberty differs from Christian exceptionalism

By Kristen Nielsen Donnelly, M.S.W., M.Div., Ph.D.

Religious liberty,” my friend said hesitantly, “sounds to me like people trying to make sure the rest of us say Christmas instead of holidays.”

I stirred my coffee, picking my next words carefully. “I’d call that something different. When I use religious liberty, when organizations like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty use it, and when Thomas Jefferson used it, it means that everyone gets to worship who or what they want, and the government has no say in it, nor will they establish a state church.”

“Oh, so separation of church and state stuff,” my friend said, clearly more comfortable with where the conversation was going. “Well, that’s a core of the Constitution, right? We can’t mess with that.”

I took a long sip of my coffee and launched into the explanation that, yes, religious liberty is enshrined in our Constitution, but people can certainly mess with it because the U.S. Constitution is a living and amendable document.

One of the foundations of the American experiment — this radical notion that people can govern themselves through elections and written documentation and town hall meetings and conversations and compromise and negotiation and sheer determination — is that the state cannot impose a godhead on the people. If the government established a state religion, for example, it would declare that the deity worshipped by that religion was owed allegiance by all citizens and would place that deity above the people’s participation in the state.

Right there, in the first amendment, the framers declared their belief that a state church and a republic were mutually exclusive. With those bold strokes of a few phrases, the United States of America became a promise to peoples of all faiths and traditions — to be a citizen will never require participation in a religious institution. You will never have to be baptized into a church to be allowed to own property, you will never have to pray at a certain temple to be an elected official, you will never have to swear to a god or goddess before enrolling your children in school.

Religious liberty, therefore, is ensuring that everyone has the right and freedom to worship who or what they want, where they want, and how they want. Any limits placed on that should be about protection from physical harm (religious terrorism is not religious liberty, for example), and not about emotional discomfort. To put it more bluntly, when people use “religious liberty” to describe their belief that America is a Christian nation, that’s not religious liberty — that’s Christian exceptionalism, and those are different things.

Theologically, there are a lot of rabbit holes we can fall down about how someone’s beliefs regarding free will frequently determine his or her stance on this issue, but those debates are best left for another time. Instead, I want to conclude with a gentle reminder.

The American experiment, which is fundamentally what this country is, relies on participation — not only voting (which it demands) but also participation. Showing up. Rolling up the proverbial sleeves. Having ideas, putting feet to them, and making them work. That also means America evolves. The very nature of participation means that the system is changed by those who participate in it; that’s simply how systems work.

If you are of the conviction that religious liberty is sacrosanct to the core of America, then you need to protect it. Pay attention to it. Nurture it. Practice it in your own congregational spaces and personal life. And, if you need assistance in doing that, my personal favorite resource for the conversation is the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Non-Baptists, fear not. “Baptist” is a nod to the priority Baptists have always placed on religious liberty — not an exclusionary label.

A commitment to religious liberty means a commitment to ensuring that there is room for all faiths: Buddhism, Islam, Rastafarianism or one’s self. It means dialogues of understanding around tables full of patience and grace, as we break bread with those who are different than us and yet the same. It means work and dedication and bravery. But it also means patriotism because to protect and foster religious liberty is one of the most fundamental pieces of this land that we love.

Kristen Nielsen Donnelly, M.S.W., M.Div., Ph.D., is COO of Abbey Companies and executive vice president of Abbey Research. Essentially, she’s a professional question asker, who lives outside of Philadelphia.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.