There is a delicate balance of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religious thought and expression, and its protection from intrusions of that freedom on that of others.
This equilibrium seems to be tilted frequently by activities that test the balance point, with two recent events illustrating how difficult this balance is to maintain.
The case of Kentucky’s Kim Davis, whose religiously based objection of marriage equality has led to her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, has brought the relation of personal faith and public policy to center stage.
Both sides of the balance have spoken strongly on behalf of each claim – the freedom of a person to hold and live by her beliefs on the one hand, and the principles affirmed by the legal system to protect rights from being infringed upon by those beliefs on the other.
Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who served as a Baptist pastor before being elected governor of Arkansas, championed Davis’ defiance of the law as a heroic act. He decried the “criminalization of Christianity” by the Supreme Court and its ruling.
The legal system, by contrast, responded by enforcing the law to the point of arresting and jailing Davis.
The second recent incident received less attention, but became another skirmish in the “let’s see how far we can push it” contest in the church/state arena.
According to reports, a “Gridiron Night” event held in a local church in Georgia found the nearby high school’s football coach responding to an invitation to embrace Christ as his Lord, becoming a candidate for baptism.
Because he was so devoted to his calling as a coach for the team, he asked if he could be baptized on the school’s football field.
Arrangements were made, a large tub was procured as a make-shift baptistery, and the baptism took place as requested before the team’s practice one afternoon.
Some 70 players and others were present. When the suggestion was made that any who wished could also be baptized with the coach, several players responded and were baptized as well.
In a video posted of the event, a caption read, “Take a look and see how God is STILL in our schools.”
Soon, as we might expect, voices concerned about protecting the separation of church and state objected to this apparent state sanction of a religious ceremony.
The skirmish continues with one side pointing to the unofficial and voluntary nature of the activity and the other side noting the subtle state support of a religious exercise through the school’s sports program.
Some sincerely believe that the right and freedom of religious thought and practice are violated by restrictions on its public expression.
Others, with equal sincerity, believe that the right of not having a certain religious expression sanctioned and imposed on those who do not share it is central to the First Amendment’s intent.
I like to hope that such skirmishes offer “teachable moments” in the ongoing challenge of seeking to maintain the balance the First Amendment seeks to provide.
Perhaps a feature of Paul’s ethical teaching can provide guidance for the path.
When developing his “ethic of love” in response to a concern in the Corinthian church over the exercise of religious freedom (in this case from certain aspects of the Law regarding the eating of meat offered in sacrifice to idols), he counseled, “Take care, lest this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to others” (1 Corinthians 8:9).
And a bit later, “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial … and not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23). Paraphrasing what follows, “What you have a right to do may not be helpful for others and the community” (1 Corinthians 10:24-32).
Things I have a right to do may not be helpful to you; and, when that is the case, an ethic of love suggests that what is helpful to you should have priority.
A generation ago, Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and influential interpreter of human experience, when reflecting on the U.S. self-portrait as the “land of the free,” observed the following: “Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
Perhaps we should consider changing our interpretation of the First Amendment from the “religious liberty amendment” to the “religious respect and responsibility amendment.”
It seems that our public conversation, high profile and low, could use a dose of that kind of respect and understanding.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).