Religious Freedom: A Balancing Act

I must say that I am amazed that the leaders of the Religious Right (and many other non-conservative religious leaders) and Christians generally clamor for prayer in the public schools.

So says Ronald B. Flowers, Emeritus Professor of Religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Flowers has recently written a book (with Steven K. Green and Melissa Rogers) titled Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court (Bayor University Press, 2008). Flowers was interviewed in the June issue of Church and State, published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Flowers goes on to say,

For the public schools to have prayer in the way these people seem to want, it would mean that the government was doing one of the primary functions of the churches. Why cannot they see that the more the government does the work of the churches, the more the churches will be marginalized? The more the government does the work of the churches, in prayer in public places and in subsidizing faith-based charities, the less the churches will be the vibrant, important institutions in society that I assume all Christians want them to be.

The United States has done a delicate balancing act between encouraging religious life and commitment as an important and significant dimension of our communal life, but without establishing or promoting any one particular religion. As religious life in the US becomes increasingly diverse, it highlights the ways in which one tradition, Christianity, has at times been emphasized in public life.

What is the way forward with our balancing act? Some react to the new diversity by clamoring for more support for the “traditional Christian” framework. Others want their religions to enjoy the same governmental acknowledgment and support that Christianity has historically enjoyed. Neither of these approaches recognizes the dangers in governmentally-supported religion outlined by Professor Flowers.

The founders of this nation saw beyond the limits of their own situation to the challenge of including new religions alongside the familiar. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on Religion (1776),

He [Locke] says “neither Pagan nor Mahomedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Shall we suffer a Pagan to deal with us and not suffer him to pray to his god?. . . It is the refusing toleration to those of different opinion which has produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion.
[quoted in McGraw, Rediscovering America’s Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America, p. 83].

The freedom and integrity of our various religious observances in this nation depends on maintaining that sacred balance- neither supporting nor repressing any given tradition, but allowing each the freedom to flourish in their own way.

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