In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach to Muslim world.
Politico’s Ben Smith wrote this week that the Obama administration “clearly sees an opportunity,” signaling “that they’re hoping the changes in Tunisia and Egypt spread, and that they’re going to align themselves far more clearly with the young, relatively secular masses” in countries like Iran, Algeria and Lebanon.
Is this a new moment for American relations with Muslim countries? Is freedom a religious or secular idea?
Religious freedom is both a religious and secular idea.
In touting genuine religious freedom — and its constitutional corollary, the separation of church and state — we Baptists often hold up 17th century preacher Roger Williams’ “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” and point to Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association where he talked about his “sovereign reverence” for the “wall of separation.” The founder of the First Baptist Church in America, and the third president spoke of freedom in their own ways.
Even Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famed 19th-century “Democracy in America,” recognized the important way religion and freedom flourished in America.
“In France, I had seen the spirits of religion and freedom almost always marching in opposite directions. In America I found them intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land … [A]ll thought that the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation in stating that throughout my stay in America I met nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that.”
Implicit in this freedom of religion is freedom from religion. Freedom from religion and freedom of religion parallel the two religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: no establishment (freedom from religion), and free exercise (freedom of religion). It also parallels the coming together in history of Enlightenment thought and religious piety conspiring in colonial times to ensconce protections for religious liberty in the Constitution. The church historian Forrest Church writes:
“The revolution was powered by two very different engines: one driven by eighteenth-century Enlightenment values, the other guided by Christian imperatives that grew out of the Great Awakening. … The former movement, emphasizing freedom of conscience … stressed freedom from the dictates of organized religion. The latter, stemming from a devout reading of the Gospels … demanded freedom for religion. … Together, these seemingly opposite world-views collaborated brilliantly and effectively to establish the separation of church and state in America.
Organizations that battle everyday for religious freedom come at it from both religious and secular angles often recognizing that a secular government can provide the best protection for religious and non-religions citizens.