Most American’s are proud of and celebrate their long heritage of religious freedom. But, what is religious freedom exactly and do we really posses it in America? More specifically, do we have religious liberty on College Campuses nationwide in the area of free speech? Or are we disillusioned?
Religious Liberty is defined as, “the power to do as one pleases” concerning devotion “to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity” or devotion “to religious beliefs or observances.” More simply stated religious liberty is the freedom to follow and express devotion to a belief system. Free speech is defined as, “speech that is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” The definition of free is more descriptive—“having legal or political rights as a citizen.” Therefore free speech can be defined as the right of a citizen, as protected by law, to speak their beliefs unhindered. This concept is cherished by Americans and taught to us at a young age along with things like “look both ways before crossing the street” and “you can be anyone you want to be” . Unfortunately, not everyone views religious liberty the same way and while it is a “core American belief,” young adults on college and university campuses nationwide are running into struggles as they try to express themselves and their beliefs, as well as live out their convictions.
America was built upon a foundation of religious liberty meant for all people of all viewpoints and their right to express themselves, their beliefs, and to pursue “life, liberty and…happiness.” The idea of religious liberty came over the Atlantic Ocean with the Founding Fathers. Europe was a hot spot for persecution of Protestants at this time and the colonists wanted a nation where all people could worship as they saw fit. Put in to the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitutional Bill of Rights which says, “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 to assemble,” it seemed as though religious liberty was guaranteed. But would it stay that way? Of course not. It didn’t take long for the different denominations and religions to quarrel over what was the correct in this aspect or that of faith. And it is only natural that Americans have continued the trend of persecuting those they see as incorrect in their way of thinking and in their practice of religion.
In 1830, Alexis De Tocqueville warned that in no country was there “less real liberty of discussion than in America.” The first reaction of many Americans would be taking offense and then burning the offensive book. This is the very concept that is keeping free speech from truly thriving, people taking offense and then taking it too far. Often, when religion is concerned, the offense is taken not because a person directly insulted them or forced beliefs on them, but the person hearing a statement, being convicted and not liking the feeling, takes it personally and decides the speaker is a “fascist bastard,” as was in the case of Jonathan Lopez in his speech class at Los Angeles City College in California. In one of his assignments, an informative speech, Lopez chose to speak on faith and marriage. After quoting verses from scripture and reading the dictionary definition of marriage, the professors interrupted him midway through his speech and called him a “fascist bastard” in front of the large class, would not then let Lopez finish and announced that anyone who was offended could leave the classroom. When no one left, the professor promptly dismissed class and when Lopez enquired after his grade, the professor sarcastically stated “Ask God what your grade is.” When Lopez reported the incident to the Dean, the professor went as far as threatening to have Lopez expelled. An ADF (Alliance Defense Fund) representative, Senior Counsel David French, commented saying, “Christian students shouldn’t be penalized or discriminated against for speaking about their beliefs. Public institutions of higher learning cannot selectively censor Christian speech. This student was speaking well within the confines of his professor’s assignment when he was censored.” Unfortunately, this is not an irregular happening. Not just in cases that make the news, but countless words and acts of religious discrimination in the area of free speech are being made every day on nearly every college campus across the country. Organizations, such as ADF, are committed to defending the religious rights of students and the ADF claim “to date, by God’s grace, we have not lost one case litigated to conclusion concerning expression of religious freedom on campus.” Should Christians have free speech on secular campuses? As in the case of Jonathan Lopez, the faculty certainly didn’t think so. When stating what he believed to be fact in an informative speech, the professor decided he was trying to be persuasive of a non-fact. But if a vegan student spoke about how it is evil in their eyes to eat meat and animal products, they wouldn’t be treated the same way. Often this is the case when Christians are met with resistance; their views are not seen as a person’s belief of fact but as condemnation and judgment on the listener.
As Christians, how do we respond to this oppression? Do we act out and rebel extremely against the biased system? Or do we sit back and go with the flow, never opening our mouths to contradict or speak our beliefs? How do we live in the freedom promised by our country and our God? Proverbs 11:6 says, “Doing right brings freedom to honest people, but those who are not trust worthy will be caught by their own desires.” The Lord requires us to follow Him, obey his commands, and to do what is right. How do we know what is right? “By walking humbly with your God” and learning all he has to teach us. Our Christian freedom won’t come from knowing the Bible by heart but from learning from God in the personal relationship he offers to us. He teaches us to discern, according to His will, what is right and what is wrong and gives us the free will and strength to act upon it. Obeying completely the mandate of secular colleges to keep our religion to ourselves is not an option. We are slaves to whatever we decide to obey, be it our own conscience, a college board or the Most High God. Romans 6:16 says we cannot serve two masters. Because God is the creator of everything, He is the highest authority and power and the ultimate deciding factor. When we are told to do something we must first compare it to God’s law, if it is contradictory then we follow God’s law instead of an earthly ruling. Compare this to a kingdom. If the Duke tells a solider to go begin a war but the King says not to, the solider obeys the King because he has the higher authority. When on a secular campus, Christians are often told to be quiet, but there is a time for silence and there is a time to speak. James 4:17 says, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” This implies that if we know we should speak up, do a report on or defend our faith on a college campus, then we must. As we walk with God and begin to understand His will in our lives and know right from wrong we must also be prepared to give an account of our beliefs at any time. 1 Peter 3:15 confirms this saying, “always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.” When challenged in class with un-biblical “fact”, or prompted by God to write a religious based essay for a secular professor, we are called to defend the faith gently but still firmly, standing by our Lord with faith and integrity.
Though our country is the “Land of the free” and our great Statue of Liberty calls out from our shores “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Christians specifically, but those of other religions as well, are persecuted and are being forcefully urged to keep silent. Yet how can we deny our faith which defines every part of our lives? Religious Liberty is but an illusion in America today especially on college campuses. Ironically, colleges were originally intended to be “safe for free speech and the discussion of many ideas,” and yet they are institutions of conformity.
Miller, Glenn T. Religious Liberty in America: History and Prospects, Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1976, p.11
Combination of definitions. Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Edition. Massachusetts, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2005, p. 716 & 1052
Smolla, Rodney, University of Richmond Dean, Speech, First Amendment Center.org
Founding Fathers, Declaration of Independence
Dieffenbach, Albert C., Religious Liberty: The Great American Illusion, William & Morrow Co., New York, 1927, p.141
ADF, Religious Freedom at Stake on Tax-funded College Campuse:ADF Defends a Censored Christian Student, alliencedefensefund.org
God, Holy Bible, New Living Translation
Zephaniah 2:3, Micah 6:8
“Don’t you realize that you become a slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living.” Romans 6:16 NLT
1 Peter 3:16, emphasis added
Lazarus, Emma, The New Colossus, 1883