FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 11/28/2012

Threats to Religious Freedom from the Right and the Left

November 6, 2012   Volume 5, Issue 14

Faith+ Ideas= an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College
By Dan Russ
We have made it to another Election Day—today, November 6, 2012—and Americans across the country are deciding on candidates and issues that directly and indirectly affect their lives. But at stake, regardless of the outcome, is the reality that those on both the left and the right are again threatening the First Amendment protection of, among its other rights, our freedom of religion.
Recent decisions, for instance, from President Obama’s administration require Catholic institutions to include birth control in their insurance policies. The Catholic Church and other religious organizations are suing the federal government, an issue likely to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where most recent decisions have supported religious freedom. 
Granted, some say that the Constitution, current law, and court decisions that threaten religious freedom are exaggerated; nonetheless, they have been gaining steam for at least the last five decades in both society and the academy.
My first encounter with this threat was as a high school student. In 1965, I joined friends in an Indiana public school to ask the principal if we could use a room once a week before school to pray together. He said no, that this was against the law. He—and many otherwise wonderful school leaders—cowered under a fearful misinterpretation of the 1963 Supreme Court decision forbidding publicly sponsored prayers.
I next encountered a seemingly growing cultural bias against freedom of religion within mainstream churches. In the 1970s, I was serving as a minister for youth in a Presbyterian church, a program that started with a handful of students and grew to over one hundred. Because of our success, the ministerial association (which included pastors from many mainline churches) invited me to meet with them. They wanted to know “our secret.” When I described our weekly gatherings, how each included fun, singing, a presentation of the Christian message, and small-group Bible studies, one of the pastors roared, “You mean fundamentalism!” Not exactly, I said. No matter; the others followed suit with impassioned criticisms and rebukes. (In the years that followed, many of these same men left the ministry to become social workers and therapists.)

In other words, the cultural fear of religion had invaded the church and the church had become the culture.
Since that time I have encountered numerous variations of bias against religion in general, Christianity in particular, in the U.S. There was the award-winning public school teacher I hired at a private Christian school who said the final straw for him was when his former principal called him into his office and reprimanded him for mentioning church in his classroom. Or the owner of a hotel in Santa Fe who finally sold his business rather than give into pressure from the gay community to support their agenda. And perhaps most dramatically, there was the president of a prestigious college who spoke at an educational conference I attended in New York City shortly after Sept. 11. He claimed that the most ‘dangerous’ thing he’d witnessed in recent history was when Billy Graham gathered other clergy, politicians and citizens in Yankee Stadium to pray after the terrorist attacks. The audience around me applauded.
Of course, similar threats to religious freedom also come from the right, mostly from believers who confuse Tea Party politics with faith. Such individuals fulfill the stereotypes of right-wing radicals, fueling the disdain of some on the left to public expressions of religion. Such right-wing conservatives, for example, recently forced the firing of two Old Testament professors from their respective seminaries, because of their ‘unconventional’ views of the Genesis account of creation.
Indeed, in a recent survey of Christian college professors, the majority did not think that the slippery slope of liberalism was a threat to Christian higher education. To the contrary, many said that they were hesitant to address gray theological topics in the classroom for fear of conservative backlash from students, parents, board members, or colleagues.
We have—and need to have—legal and political protection of our religious freedom. Still, that alone cannot protect us from the cultural intimidation that often comes from those on the left and the right. Freedom in our culture and academy means people of faith must risk living and speaking their convictions, to challenge those who might exclude religion from the public square and to confront those who would insist that ‘true faith’ must conform to their conservative dogmas. For the courage to believe will matter long after the polls are closed.
Dan Russ is the academic dean and a professor of English at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his wife live in Danvers, MA.


Dan Russ