Many of the first settlers came to America to find religious freedom; how ironic that this founding principle of the United States is now being threatened by its own people. The American people are extremely fortunate to have religious freedom without restrictions, considering that the majority of the world does not have this privilege. The First Amendment to the United States Bill of Rights states the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a dress of grievances.” This statement promises that citizens are free to believe what they choose to believe, as well as to speak about and act upon these beliefs; however, as society becomes more secular, religious freedoms are not held to the same level of importance and are being threatened across the country. Unfortunately, this lack of respect for religious freedom is a frightening indication for the potential future of U.S. freedom as a whole because when religious freedom is threatened, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are also threatened. In order to protect these priceless freedoms, it is vital that society recognizes the problem and works towards potential solutions.

What is the Problem?

The Family Research Council conducted a study that showed a 76% increase in overall religious freedom violations documented from 2014 to 2017. So what is the problem? The problem has nothing to do with individual beliefs or political party preferences; the problem is that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and over the past 4 years, the same religious freedoms that built the United States are being threatened towards possible extinction.

How can we protect this precious freedom that our forefathers fought so hard to provide for us?

The Start of the Solution: An Individual Decision… For Every Individual

Everyone is entitled to their own agency. First, we need to understand that religion is an individual decision, just as everything from political views to favorite meals are individual decisions. This individual decision is not for us to judge, just as we should not judge someone based on their political views or favorite meals. Second, we need to recognize that religious freedom is not solely for those who are religious- people can choose religion or not choose religion. Religious freedom means you can practice Catholicism if you want, but the government cannot force you to practice Catholicism. In the same way that religious freedom protects those who practice religion, it protects those who do not practice religion. This is absolutely vital in understanding religious freedom- it concerns each citizen, regardless of what their religious inclinations may be. This protected religious freedom includes the freedom to decide your own beliefs, freedom of speech to openly discuss your beliefs, and freedom of assembly to peacefully gather with others who believe the same way you do - all without punishment or interference from the government. Because the term ‘religious freedom’ includes all peoples- those who practice and do not practice religion- ‘religious freedom’ and ‘religious beliefs’ will continue to be used as terms which include all peoples.

Let’s Talk

Thanks to religious freedom, there is freedom of speech, which gives each person the freedom to share what they believe. Unfortunately, this freedom of speech has been abused in various situations when it comes to religious freedom in the U.S., including employees being fired or pressured to step down from their positions due to their faith. There is nothing wrong with talking about religious differences- in fact, it is valuable to have the opportunity to listen to others explain their beliefs to help deepen your own understanding of their beliefs as well as develop a stronger relationship with that person. However, many current conversations about religious freedom do not accomplish these things because participants often turn the conversation into an argument and admonish the other person for what they believe. Instead of allowing the conversation to flourish, participants constantly criticize beliefs, arguing why they think the other person is wrong, and telling them what they should think; this entire model of conversation suffocates the concept of religious freedom. Rather than avoiding all discussions concerning religious beliefs, participants should recognize the importance of religious freedom and make an effort to modify the conversation. Each conversation should be saturated with respect, kindness, sensitivity, peace, civility, and the desire to understand. These attributes will allow for positive and meaningful conversations that will bring people closer together as a human race rather than separate society and threaten religious freedom. If you disagree with someone, which surely will happen because no two people have the same mind, the most important thing to remember is to have mutual respect for one another; even if you disagree with someone, you should never be disagreeable.

Listen to Learn

Many discussions about belief end before they begin if the participants are discussing only to prove the other person wrong. Proving someone wrong should never be the intention of a conversation, whether you are discussing religious beliefs, political ideas, issues with a coworker, or a problem within your marriage. In order to make the conversation beneficial for all participants, it is vital to enter the conversation with the intent of seeking to understand the other person’s perspective. This is not to say you need to agree with everything they say, simply listen to them and genuinely try to learn from them. Likewise, you can share what you believe to be true; don’t pressure them or judge them if they have different views on various subjects, even if those subjects may be sensitive to you. If listening to learn seems difficult, think of times throughout history where listening opened doors for humanity. What if fellow scientists never listened to Sir Isaac Newton explain his ideas on gravity, or if society wrote off Thomas Edison before he could share his new invention of the lightbulb? As a society, we are able to develop and grow as we have freedom of speech, freedom to learn, and freedom to choose for ourselves- and part of that development and growth as a society always stems from listening to new ideas.

Common Ground

There is so much in today’s world that separates us but there is so much more that can bring us together. Religions strongly encourage everyone to love each other, pointing to love as the key in many of their esteemed religious leaders. Likewise, atheists and agnostics alike believe that everyone should love each other. A popular project entitled “love is love” was created to show that love is the same whether you are straight or LGBT. So let’s start there: with love.

It’s simple. Love is accepting everyone. Love is accepting that others may have different beliefs than you. Love is accepting them anyways. Love is loving them just as they are, without constantly criticizing them for their beliefs. Love is loving them without telling them their beliefs are wrong or pressuring them to change their beliefs. Love is acceptance. Love is respecting them as you would want them to respect you. Love is loving them. Love is love.

Celebrating Differences

Differing beliefs need not become a barrier; instead, we should celebrate each other and our right to choose what we believe. A Christian is supportive of an atheist because they each have their agency to choose what they believe; likewise, a Jew is supportive of a Muslim because they each have their agency to choose what they believe. Just because they all have different beliefs does not mean they cannot coexist while living out their own beliefs.

In today’s world, many religious standards differ from secular standards and while each group believes their standards to be true, this does not mean we cannot live peacefully amongst each other. Think about the lunch table back in elementary school: each child brought a different lunch, but it didn’t mean the class divided into PB&J sandwiches versus slices of pizza. Everyone accepted their different lunches and moved on, eager to discuss recess plans and make each other laugh. Life is so simple as a child but for some reason, adults tend to make things more difficult than they need to. Try accepting your own lunch table this week; recognize that each person you interact with might have different beliefs but choose instead to focus on the joys of life and making the other person feel loved.

Moving Forward - Together

As we accept differing beliefs and build relationships with others, we can build a stronger future for our society as a whole. We need to be cognizant of situations in which we need to protect the rights of everyone to believe and practice what they want; start in small ways, such as speaking kindly in religious discussions, respecting others’ beliefs, and speaking up for others in situations where religious freedom is not being honored. By doing these things, we can assist in creating a climate of tolerance in which everyone can choose their beliefs for themselves, speak for themselves, and live the life they desire to live- a life rooted in religious freedom.