In recent days the White House and Canada’s Supreme Court both touched a raw nerve. They rubbed up against a debate disconcerting many North Americans: what does it mean to be religious (in these cases Christian) and in what places does religion have legally approved space to live?
It happened this way. The White House clarified what religious organizations are required to provide under the new federal health care (“Obamacare”) provision. Earlier it told religious (mainly affecting Roman Catholic) agencies and organizations to provide medical coverage to its people in areas of birthing management, including abortion-related medication (“morning-after” pills). When facing an enormous public outcry they quickly revised its earlier policy and said the religious agency wouldn’t have to provide the coverage but insurance companies would, pro bono.
In Canada, the Supreme Court ruled a Quebec family could not pull its children out of a course on religion, and further that the school course did not infringe on their constitutionally protected freedom of religion.
The nexus is this: religious freedom, a hallmark of western democracy, an idea fostered by nations with a Christian heritage, is central to our ethos and daily living. Whenever it is, or felt to be infringed on, political and religious nerves are set on edge, shared by those north and south of the 49th.
My point is not to argue for the right or wrong, the good or bad of either decision. The space the issue invades is this; when is my religious faith a viable contract with society and when is it extraneous? Is faith a privately held conviction, something specifically I practise often with a community by way of worship/celebration or is it something more than that?
The government or court and its constitution in effect by these two rulings have in effect said, “You’ve got enough space for the practise of your religion, beyond that you are invading the public square.” The White House, in its first version, did what secularism does, they deemed the exercise of religion as that which you do privately or in a church/synagogue/mosque. By extension, a hospital run by a church community is no longer religious and therefore has no right to see itself as a place for the free exercise of religion. As someone noted, today Jesus would not be regarded as religious, as he fed and healed those outside his faith community, beyond the Temple or synagogue.
The Quebec parents who objected to their children being taught a smorgasbord of religion, and by implication, “all religions are equally true and have the same value,” said their faith was not confined to home, church or private views but integrated into all of life. As parents they asserted the right to train their children, including being able to decide what they are taught about religion in the public school. The court ruled otherwise, implying that if children are not taught equally about all religions, they may grow up as religious pretzels, disfigured and ill equipped to live in a pluralistic and mosaic-configured world.
This issue isn’t going away. And it isn’t getting easier to resolve. The more multi-religious our countries become, and especially as the Muslim presence increases, bringing with them a world-view in which there is no separation of religion and public life, the more this will befuddle those tasked with the responsibility of overseeing Solomonic swords.
A way into the two secular-imposed solitudes of religious faith and public square matters is to ask, which preposition is to be used: freedom of religion or freedom from religion? The first–"from"–means the public square is sparred the pressure of institutional faith – no religion rules. This defines separation of church and state – a church can’t impose itself on the public order. The second–"of"–refers to people with the right to make personal choices of belief. Here the state can’t impose itself on a person’s choice of religion.
During the early to mid 20th century, main line liberal Protestantism acquiesced to a growing secularity. As Richard J Neuhaus noted, “. . . others cheered on those Christians who were trying so hard to board the ship of the modern world of which they, the secular thinkers, were clearly now in charge.”
Evangelicals did the opposite, withdrawing into sectarian tents, waiting on various theological hills for the Parousia. Together both Christian communities allowed the public square to be occupied by those who believed that freedom "from" religion meant freedom "of" any religious influence whatsoever.
Today, courts, politicians and managers of public enterprises vacillate between defining religious faith in public life as "from" or "of." The obvious questions is, “What is meant by religion?” Is it private or public? Is it what we do in a house of worship, and in our homes, or is it how we practise life in all places of living?
What is going on in these two liberal (meaning the rights of the individual) democracies is yet another example of the pressure to define religious freedom, often resulting in the sequestering of the ideas and values of faith in being a public participant.
The challenge earnest Christians face is how to live in peace in societies made up of a plurality of faiths while standing true to one’s Christian vision of truth and witness.
What is the way forward? Make it clear that faith involves the totality of life. Press back when you feel government, court or public service interpreting the practise of religious freedom as the public square swept of people of faith shaping public life. Freedom from and freedom of are two different ideas. Words matter.