Election Results Do Not Change the Constancy and Vitality of Faith-Based Organizations
Chelsea Langston Bombino, November 18, 2016
This election has emphasized the deep differences in our democracy. People have expressed their vastly differing ideological and religious paradigms about what is good for themselves and for others. There are many different opinions and reactions to the outcome of the election, as well. But one thing remains clear: individuals and organizations across difference were able to participate in the democratic process in this country because of the First Amendment freedoms we often take for granted.
Freedom of speech, press, assembly and freedom to petition the government are so essential to our national discourse and national identity that, like breathing, most of us engage in these activities unconsciously. Yet it is vital that we intentionally acknowledge our freedom to participate in these First Amendment activities. Together, they create a tapestry of activities and expression common to the experience of being human.
Also essential to the experience of being human is being able to ask transcendent questions about what it means to be a divinely creative being and about what is best for human flourishing. Beyond that, people must be able to explore, arrive at, and live out the answers to these most basic of human questions. That is why, in a pluralist society, it is essential that the First Freedom- the ability to practice one’s faith- is the preeminent freedom upon which all other First Amendment freedoms are built and rely.
Religious freedom as a First Amendment pillar is not confined to personal, private, explicitly religious acts like prayer and worship. Humans are relational beings and essential to being human is the ability to form associations and groups based on common identities and common purposes. These groups, in their own capacity, take on religious or other animating identities and missions. In a religiously diverse society, religious freedom is not fully encompassed without the robust recognition that groups and organizations must also be able to fully practice their faith in public life.
Forming relationships, and, by extension, groups and institutions, is an integral component of many different religions. In the Christian tradition, the inherent identity of the Triune God is that of a relational being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit in constant, mutually strengthening relationship with one another. One God in Three persons. In the Lakota spiritual tradition, people are called to constantly acknowledge and live their lives in continual awareness of their relationships and connections to all other beings. Their greeting for one another- Mitakuye Oyasin- translates to “All My Relations.” In the Buddhist tradition, as the Dalai Lama has stated that interdependence, the capacity to form cooperative partnerships and associations, is “is a fundamental law of nature…Our own survival is so dependent on the help of others that a need for love lies at the very core of our existence. This is why we need to cultivate a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.”
Therefore, in a diverse society with people holding differentiated life animating and faith paradigms, religious freedom must apply to faith practices of not just individuals, but also to the faith practices of associations, groups and institutions. In the coming weeks and months, advocates of religious freedom ought to challenge the narrow notions of religious freedom that only apply to individual, personal contexts. Promoting religious freedom for diverse faith institutions in an increasingly diverse public square is essential. Advancing an openness in civil society to distinctive organizational practices of faith will empower a variety of community-based organizations to help fulfill the highly particular and specific needs of diverse communities.
In this new political moment, where there are, as of yet, more unknowns than known quantities about the postures and policies of the next administration, it is easy to develop either anxiety, apathy, or arrogance about what is to come. Yet there is another approach. The uncertainty of this political moment presents a rarified opportunity for advancing an expansive, pluralist creative vision of religious freedom.
This vision must be expansive – it must include people and organizations, of all faiths or no faith, and it must be inclusive of religious practices, like protest, service, and vocational activities, that aren’t as obviously religiously-based as prayer. It must recognize religion cannot be confined solely to house of worship, but is a holistic way of being, a fragrance brought into whatever place religious people, individually or together, find themselves.
This vision must be pluralist – it must advocate for space in society for religious organizations that disagree with each other to make their own distinctive contributions, and it must insist that religious individuals and institutions treat their very different neighbors as they would like to be treated by advocating for the religious freedom of those unlike themselves, for religious freedom for all.
This vision of religious freedom of must be creative – it must draw upon different disciplines and spheres of society to communicate the important and innovative impact of faith organizations on their communities and their diverse and distinct religious identities that allow them to do so.
How can those that care about religious freedom advance a comprehensive, positive vision for empowering diverse religious institutions to thrive and serve in a diverse civil society? Any approach must consider three distinct, yet overlapping areas: public policy, organizational practices, and public perception.
Public Policy: In the next administration, as in the current administration, advocates of institutional religious freedom and a diversity of organizations need to engage in promoting the structures and systems that enable organizations with varying religious identities (or none) and varying mission-areas, to thrive. What laws or regulations, on a local, state or federal level, will create an environment where diverse institutions can provide creative and identifiably faith-shaped solutions to our most pressing challenges? Pluralist public policies that create space for organizational diversity do not just support religious freedom, they create a differentiated marketplace of innovative approaches to solving some of the key issues of our day, including racial reconciliation, quality education for all children, creating equal opportunities, alleviating poverty, and more.
Practice: Those that care about advancing religious freedom for the many different faith organizations in our diverse public square should consider how to empower faith organizations in their own purview to be good stewards of their religious freedom. This is a recognition that, just as government has the responsibility to uphold public policies that allow for religious freedom, faith organizations also have a responsibility to uphold their religious freedom by abiding in organizational practices that are consistent and explicit about their faith. Faith organizations ought to steward their religious freedom responsibly by making their faith-based identity and practices clear in their organizing documents, in their employment practices, in how they provide services, in the partnerships they form with government, funders, or other individuals, and in every other aspect of their organizational lives.
Public Perception: Religious freedom advocates should consider how to engage creatively to craft a positive public perception of diverse religious organizations, including shaping culture. Stories of distinctive, unique faith-shaped organizations serving in innovative ways -from Muslim modeling agencies, to Pagan food banks, to Christian LGBT-rights groups, to Adventist health providers- need to be told. Faith leaders should be fluent in stories of organizations both like and unlike their own and how advocating for religious freedom does not just protect their own organizations, it also protects organizations with whom they disagree.
Religious freedom advocates have the opportunity to help write the story of how religious freedom for diverse organizations is a social good and contributes to innovations in solving some of our greatest social challenges. In the next few months, as we all wait to see how a new administration will take shape, let’s do more than wait. Let’s shape the narrative of pluralist religious freedom as essential to the unfurling of the American experiment.