State representatives from Virginia’s Culpeper County voted a few days ago to block the construction of a mosque. A group of Muslims, currently without any proper worship facility, applied for a sewage system permit to being the construction of a mosque on an abandoned lot. The decision received cheering and applause from county residents at the meeting. But a search for any sort of outcry from religious liberty advocates will yield very few results. In fact the silence is nearly deafening.
News media is peppered with stories of Christian business owners who expect religious freedom and retreat behind easily accessible legal defense against punishment for questionably discriminatory practices. The individual merits of those disputes are inessential to this article. But demanding the ability to freely practice Christianity while turning a blind eye to (or outright protesting) the same appeals by a different religion matters because it contradicts the most elementary understanding of religious freedom.
A realization that religious liberty innately jettisons preferential treatment toward any particular faith is disturbingly absent from the political ken of conservative Americans. Active persecution of other religions would doubtlessly trigger noted disapproval from religious conservatives. But normative marginalization is conscionable.
Misconceptions about religious freedom are easily explainable though. Most probably, religious freedom is assumed to be synonymous with Christian protection because Christian conservatives presuppose that the United States was founded as a Christian nation which should entitle the Christian religion to a privileged status.
Contrary to the Christian-heritage assumption, however, the United States was founded as a free nation. Many Founders were outspoken Christians and this shared belief heavily influenced their political ideology. Indeed the Founders repeatedly wrote that a moral citizenry is requisite to the success of the nation they created. But the Founders never intended for the union of the thirteen original colonies to create a Christian nation. And even though many Christians would flatly reject the idea of establishing Christianity as a state religion, expecting preferential legal protection is, for all intents and purposes, no different.
It’s worth noting that the Founders also did not intend the constitutional provisions for religious liberty to only create a peaceful coexistence between numerous non-practicing religions. Knowing that the ultimate end of every moral conviction is action, America’s Founders frequently wrote about the freedom of expression rather than the more contemporary label of freedom of religion. Expression also implies the necessity of worship as crucial to the rights of the first amendment. Absent expression, religious freedom is a hollow catch-phrase and belief is meaningless.
If religious liberty advocates—primarily Christians—are intellectually honest with themselves and America, their fight for religious liberty is just a mislabeled campaign for exclusively Christian freedom. Religious freedom is an indisputably central tenant of liberal democracy and designed to be equally accessible by every citizen. And fighting to protect one religion more than others or to enable one faith to discriminate against religious or social counterparts is patently discordant with the freedoms of the first amendment.
Consistency in advocating for religious liberty does not, for example, require American Christians to adopt Muslim beliefs nor donate to the construction of a mosque. But recognition and respect for the universality of the right needs to accompany an expectation of religious freedom. The liberties enjoyed by one religion must be enjoyed by all religions.