APU Online Learning Original

Why It Is Essential to Maintain Religious Freedom in the US

By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Department Chair, Communication and World Languages Programs

For decades, the President of the United States of America has published a proclamation for religious freedom. George W. Bush, William Clinton, George H. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden have all proclaimed the importance of religious freedom, the need for religious tolerance, and how the U.S. always tries to facilitate religious freedom throughout the world.

Here are some excerpts from the presidential religious freedom proclamations of the last 28 years:

  • In January 2022, President Joe Biden stated: “Our country’s greatest strength is and always has been our diversity, including the multitude of faiths and beliefs practiced across our Nation. My Administration is committed to strengthening the Federal workforce by ensuring that it resembles the full breadth of our people by promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, including on the basis of religion.”
  • In January 2021, then-President Donald Trump said: “While Americans enjoy the blessings of religious liberty, we must never forget others around the world who are denied this unalienable right. Sadly, millions of people across the globe are persecuted and discriminated against for their faith. “
  • In January 2010, then-President Barack Obama stated: “Long before our Nation’s independence, weary settlers sought refuge on our shores to escape religious persecution on other continents. Recognizing their strife and toil, it was the genius of America’s forefathers to protect our freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice none at all.”
  • In January 2002, then-President George W. Bush said just months after 9/11:  “Today, as America wages war against terror, our resolve to defend religious freedom remains as strong as ever. Many miles from home, American service men and women have risked their lives in our efforts to drive the Taliban regime from power, ending an era of brutal oppression, including religious oppression. At home, Americans demonstrated the vitality of our religious freedom in the enormous outreach by faith communities to help those harmed by the terrorist attacks. In quiet prayers offered to God in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques and in the helping hands of faith-based groups, Americans have shown a deep love for others and genuine spiritual unity that will sustain us through the difficult days of recovery.”
  • In January 1996, then-President William Clinton stated: “Our Nation’s profound commitment to religious freedom reminds us that many people around the world lack the safeguard of law to protect them from prejudice and persecution. We deplore the religious intolerance that too often tears neighbor from neighbor, and we must remain an international advocate for the ideal of human brotherhood and sisterhood and for the basic rights that sustain human dignity and personal freedom.”
  • In January 1993, then-President George H. W. Bush said in the first religious freedom proclamation: “The United States has continued to champion religious liberty and tolerance around the world. We decry as reprehensible the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, and we likewise condemn the resurgence of anti-Semitism and other forms of religious bigotry.”

The Importance of Religion and Religious Freedom

For many people, religion is extremely important. To put it mildly, there are many religions in the world that go beyond just the “Big Four”: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Judaism, although it is important in the U.S., has only 0.2% of the world following it. Consequently, it is not part of the “Big Four,” although its text forms the foundation of Christianity and Islam.

Even if you do not follow a religion, the vast majority of people in the world follow a religion in the world, but to varying degrees of devotion. When we think of religious freedom, we must remember that all religions are diverse, change and respond to the cultural influences of many different countries.

Even though the vast majority of Americans adhere to Christianity, 31.2% of the world are Christians. So when we have discussions about religious freedom, it is necessary to include all religions and not just a discussion of different Christian denominations.

Related link: Religious Literacy: Knowing Answers to Essential Questions

The Three Core Principles of Religion

In a great YouTube video series called “Religion for Breakfast,” Dr. Andrew Henry talks about “3 Things Everyone Should Know about Religion.” These three core principles come from the Harvard Religion and Public Life at the Harvard Divinity School, where they have an excellent religious literacy project. The three core principles are:

  • Religions are internally diverse as opposed to uniform.
  • Religions evolve and change over time as opposed to being ahistorical and static.
  • Religious influences are embedded in all dimensions of culture as opposed to functioning in the ‘private’ sphere of social life.

Although these principles might seem like common sense, there is great complexity and nuances in each principle. First of all, consider the first principle that religions are internally diverse as opposed to uniform.

Using Christianity as an example, there are several major branches of Christianity in the world: Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Non-Trinitarian Restorationism. Even when you look at one of these branches of Christianity such as Protestantism, you get numerous internal denominations such as Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Reform, Methodist, Seventh-Day Adventist and Pentecostalism.

Also, you will have slightly different approaches to a religion, depending on the country and location. For instance, the Lutheran religion is practiced differently in the Church of Sweden, the United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India, the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Lutheran church in your community.

The next core principle is that religions evolve and change over time as opposed to being ahistorical and static. In some circles, however, people like to profess that how they worship today is the exact same as people did in the past.

Using Christianity again as the example, there are some people that are certain that they worship just like early Christians worshiped during and just after Paul the Apostle. However, practicing in the same way is impossible even if people try to be as authentic and historically accurate as possible.

As Religion and Public Life at Harvard states, “Religions exist in time and space and are constantly interpreted and reinterpreted by believers,” which is typically called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is “the science of interpretation, especially of the Scriptures.”

Throughout history, people are constantly interpreting religious texts based on what is going on during their lifetime, which is neither ahistorical nor static. The study of religion and religious texts, as well as how people interpret and follow these texts, is complex and changes over time.

Related link: Developing a Functional Moral Compass in Online Courses

Having Religious Freedom Is Critical

The need for religious freedom is critical because people often discount how others interpret the Bible or other religious texts. Following your own path and the inspiration you have from the God you worship are essential freedoms.

The final core principle is that religious influences are embedded in all dimensions of culture as opposed to functioning in the ‘private’ sphere of social life. Life in contemporary America might make you think that religion has always been detached from the public sphere.

But when you look closer at different cultural holidays and symbols, you’ll see religion. Besides Easter and Christmas, holidays that originate in Christianity, there are other ways in which Christianity is embedded in U.S. culture.

For instance, there are religious symbols and words on our money. There are prayers before any number of events, especially sporting events, and we use religious stories and icons in movies and other forms of entertainment.

Many aspects of American culture have been influenced by Christianity versus an influence by Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Native American religions. An event like Christmas can be completely secular for some people or religious for others. But it’s important to know where some of our cultural legacies come from and that some of them are religious.

Religious freedom is one of the great American freedoms. Throughout history, people have always asked questions about existence and have tried to answer these questions with religion.

Letting people find their own metaphysical meaning of the world and giving them the freedom to find that meaning is one of the greatest freedoms people can have. Similarly, having a government that supports religious freedom allows people to flourish, find meaning in their existence, and live their lives the way they want without government interference in their religious lives.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Department Chair in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and a MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

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