Religious Freedom: What Are We So Afraid Of?

Shocking is the only way to describe the news story I just heard.  It was about Coach Kennedy, a former marine who, if I heard correctly, is an Afghanistan combat veteran.  When he got out of the service, he began coaching high school football in his home state of Washington.  He loves coaching.  He adores the kids he’s been entrusted with.  He calls coaching the highlight of his life.   

Since he began coaching in 2008, it has been his practice at the end of every game--win or lose--to go to the middle of the field, take a knee and say a short, fifteen second prayer.  Over time, some of his players began joining him.  At times most of the team would take a knee with him as he prayed.  Other times only a couple of players joined him.  Either way--win or lose--coach Kennedy takes a knee and prays this prayer at the end of every game.

Until, that is, one of his players’ parents informed the Superintendent about this.  According to the report I heard, the parent in question wasn’t upset; he actually went to the Superintendent to go out of his way to applaud what coach Kennedy was doing, to tell him what a great role model coach Kennedy is, doing this--win or lose--after every game.  The superintendent didn’t see it the same way.  He was upset and gave Kennedy an ultimatum: Stop praying or lose your job. 

Kennedy, who was willing to spill his blood for this country, willing to give his life to protect our constitutional rights, felt he couldn’t stop without losing his integrity.  He also felt like he would be setting a bad example for his players if he backed down.  So, knowing he could lose the position he loves so much, he went to the middle of the field and said his prayer at the end of the next game.  Upon which, he was promptly fired.  In April, the Supreme Court will be hearing his case.

To be fair, I only heard this one, sympathetic version of Coach Kennedy’s story.  There may be a lot more to the story.  And, even if the details I heard are accurate, as a former teacher and coach, I know the influence someone in Coach Kennedy’s position can exercise over youth, even when not dong anything to pressure them in any way--they can still feel pressured.  Or, if they really admire a role model like Kennedy, feel a strong compulsion to emulate them.  This creates a subtle but very powerful influence over them and their lives.  But granted all of this, when it comes to religious freedom, to the ability to express one’s beliefs in the public square, I can’t help but ask: What are we so afraid of?  

Oh, I’m well aware of the dangers of religious fanaticism.  I’m afraid of it too.  I wouldn’t want to allow any manipulation, coercion or even proselytizing in the public square.  I wouldn’t want to allow cult-like brainwashing to be snuck into our public discourse.  I wouldn’t want to see one religion officially  promoted over any other.  I wouldn’t want anyone’s right to privacy violated by unwanted intrusions of religious dogmatism.  However, most of the ways people express their religious beliefs is no different than the way we routinely express other values.  It is usually done in respectful ways that honor other people’s dignity and freedom.  There is a vast difference between sharing a view, or expressing your faith in some public act, and trying to force your faith on someone else, or continuing to badger people with it once they’ve expressed a lack of interest. 

In modern America, we seem to be pushing any religious expression--and only religious expression--out of the public square.  We only seem to be tolerant of religion that is private, a matter of personal experience.  You have your truth and I have mine.  But don’t speak your truth because the very act of speaking it is offensive.  Even though we don’t consider this a problem with any other forms of truth. 

But really, when it comes to the public expression of faith, what are we so afraid of?  How is what coach Kennedy was doing any different than a teacher who has a bumper sticker on their car supporting a particular political party or position?  Believe me, students notice.  They pay attention to what car you drive.  And, if they admire you, a form of political expression as benign as a bumper sticker will  influence them in the same way.  How is what Coach Kennedy did more offensive than what my baseball coaches did after every game, drinking beer in the parking lot as we waited for our rides home?  Don’t think for a second that this is not a public display, communicating certain values, values which most people probably don’t consider beneficial to youth.  Would you rather have a coach who models an expression of faith, or encourages drinking alcohol?  Maybe in modern America we would prefer drinking to faith.  But what does that say about us and our values, and how much value we place on our constitutional liberties?  

So really, what are we so afraid of?  I know of no major religion--at least in their teachings, if not always in practice--which believes faith can be forced, coerced, or even manipulated at all.  From a Christian perspective, not only is there no fear of other ideas, whether from other religions, philosophies, worldviews, or even atheistic views.  There is also an imperative that people familiarize themselves with these ideas for any faith they might put in Christ to be a genuine, free act of faith.  Christianity not only tolerates such free expression, it encourages it.  At the heart of Christian faith is the conviction that God has created us with free will.  We have to freely choose faith in Christ.  And the only way that freedom can be real is if people have been exposed to the marketplace of religious ideas.  But in order to be exposed to other ideas, people have to be free to express them.  This is a far more radical tolerance than we practice in America.  We only tolerate other religious ideas if they are kept private.  But, Christianity maintains, to be fully human, we have to be free to explore the ultimate questions of life, questions about our place in the universe, God, meaning, and death, and then be able to express the beliefs we adopt.  When this is stifled in any way by limiting to any extent the freedom to express our worldview commitments, it is an affront to our dignity and our humanity is diminished. 

Provided religious ideas--and by religious I mean any way people choose to answer life’s ultimate questions--are expressed and shared respectfully, which for the most part they are, what are we so afraid of?  In a free market of ideas, religious and otherwise, we are all enriched as human beings.  Indeed, this is essential to the full exercise of our humanity.  The more we are exposed to different religions, philosophies, and worldviews in the marketplace of ideas, the more genuine freedom and autonomy we will have.  We need the public expression of religion to guarantee this. 

One last thing: At times, Christians do proselytize, do use manipulative and coercive means to spread the faith.  To our everlasting shame, we have used cult-like brainwashing techniques to play on people’s emotions and vulnerabilities.  This is reprehensible, cringeworthy, and, most of all, completely unnecessary.  I lament such behavior and am profoundly sorry if you’ve ever been victim to it.  No Christian should ever behave this way--and no Christian should ever feel the need to.  As I’ve pointed out before, when Christianity is placed in the marketplace of ideas, it is thoroughly compelling.  People overwhelmingly, freely, choose it.  The twentieth century is the first century wherein the majority of the world’s population has been exposed to the different major religions.  It is also the century wherein Christianity has become the only truly worldwide religion, crossing cultural barriers in ways no other religion has.  When people are free to choose, they overwhelmingly choose Christ.  And if we as Christians don’t want people to fear our expression of faith, we need to keep this in mind and always share our faith with the utmost respect for people’s freedom, the very respect God has for all of our freedom.

Do you think religious freedom is under attack?  Do you thing the attack is justified?  You can go to the “Contact E. J.” and share any comments, questions, or feedback you have.  I would love to hear from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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