As the United States prepares to elect its 45th president, issues surrounding the place of religion in American public life are at the heart of some of the most contentious debates in American culture. There are competing visions of what “religious freedom” means and whether there is any place for religion outside of individual private worship. The implications are numerous, from issues of marriage and abortion, to higher education and business.
Based on the candidates’ background, policy statements, and your own analysis, how will they handle issues of domestic religious freedom as the next president of the United States?
Not only has the 2016 presidential election polarized America on almost every major issue, it has also served as a source of hysteria. Each party—and those unaffiliated—views the opposing candidate’s win as disaster. If Hillary wins, it’s the end of American Christianity; if Trump wins, all Muslims will be excommunicated.
It is in this moment, then, that I want to invite everyone to pause and just take a deep breath.
If we have given in to fear and anxiety, then we have truly forgotten how the American system works. While the president of the United States wields incredible authority and influence—as one of the most powerful individuals in the world—he or she does not have absolute power.
Our government system was established on the concept of “checks and balances,” meaning each of our governing branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—is subject to the other two. No one entity can curb the freedom of American citizens; neither Congress nor the White House nor the Supreme Court can single-handedly deny or rewrite our constitutional rights. Our system is bigger than one person and, even, than an entire branch.
Next month’s election will be significant—perhaps one of the most important in modern U.S. history—but it will not make or break our nation. And it will certainly not signify the doom of religious freedom in America, but – that is to say – it does not mean religious freedom is secure. It’s just that the focus of our concern tends to begin on a federal level but it actually all ought to begin on a local level.
Over the years, religious communities have gained a growing distrust of powerful politicians, but the truth is that religious freedom is lost in much subtler ways. And the battle for maintaining it is waged much closer to home.
Here’s one recent example:
Following a parent’s complaint, the Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a letter to the superintendent of the Siloam Springs school district in Arkansas requesting a bus driver refrain from playing a Christian radio station on the bus.
“It is our understanding that the bus driver on bus #24 plays programming from a local Christian radio station, KLRC, each day while students are taking the bus to and from school. One of KLRC’s main purposes is to ‘share hope in Christ.’ It plays contemporary Christian music and Christian programming. We were contacted by a district parent who objects to having his child listen to this religious radio station while on the school bus,” reads the letter.
“The Siloam Springs School District must ensure that religious broadcasts are not being played to students utilizing district transportation.”
The letter then cited several legal case examples as “evidence” to support the plea against the bus driver. The superintendent acquiesced and advised the school bus driver, who was not even playing the music to promote a religion, to not tune to the radio station anymore.
I’m presenting this example because I want to point out that this order did not come from the Supreme Court, or a congressman or senator, or even the Oval Office. It came from the school superintendent of a city of barely 16,000 people in northwest Arkansas. The complaint might have originated with a single parent and might have been inflated by an anti-religion group, but the decision was made by one local school official.
While the men and women who sit in the highest court of our land make monumental decisions for our entire nation, the men and women who sit in our school boards and city councils make decisions that have a direct and immediate impact on our communities. And while religious freedom visits the halls of Congress and the chamber of the Supreme Court a few times a year, HR departments, lower courts, and the offices of our local lawmakers debate its application on a daily basis. This is one of the reasons why voting is so important. We can’t run our eyes too quickly over our local races in order to select our preferred congressional or presidential candidate. City Council members matter. In fact, the erosion of our freedom almost always begins there.
And this isn’t just about the freedom to practice faith—whether it’s Christianity or Islam or Judaism or even atheism—for it is a religion, too—religious freedom should not be at peril in America. It is our first and most foundational liberty.
It was religious freedom that galvanized our forefathers to seek independence and claim the inalienable rights endowed on us by our Creator; it was religious freedom that moved Abraham Lincoln to end the scourge of slavery and proclaim emancipation to the millions trapped in America; and it was religious freedom that inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to reach for that dream of equality and brotherhood.
As I argued when invited to speak at the National Conference on Religious Freedom two years ago: To silence faith is to silence the moral conscience of our nation. And these days the silencing starts in the quiet niches of our society, like a school bus in rural Arkansas.
While Trump and Hillary may distort our country’s understanding of religious freedom for their own political gains, it is up to us to protect its definition in our homes, for it is there where intolerance or kindness is learned. We must also think about not only who will be representing us in Washington, D.C. but also who will be representing us in our towns and states.
In the end, it is up to us, as individuals to hold each other in check, and to be the first bulwark for the defense of each other’s freedom of religion.
Read more at The Fight for Religious Freedom Begins at Home.