Racial Equality

Baptist Theologian Provides Welcome Reminder On The Limits Of Religious Freedom

  Rob Boston

Yesterday we noted that while Christian nationalist groups have been heedlessly pushing for in-person religious services even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage in some parts of the country, many faith leaders are calling for a much more sensible course.

Among them is Curtis W. Freeman, research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School. Freeman outlined his views recently in a thoughtful opinion piece for the Greensboro News & Record.

Freeman is critical of the protestors who swamped the state capitol in Raleigh, N.C., to demand an immediate reopening of the state, including houses of worship. He points out that they’re overlooking the fact that church gatherings have been identified as vectors for the virus. Thus, government officials are trying to protect public safety by banning all large gatherings, religious and secular.

The protestors, Freeman says, fail to grasp the nuances of religious freedom, writing, “They presume that their right to worship the way they choose is greater than their responsibility to love their neighbors.”

Freeman goes on to point out that religious freedom is not, and never has been, interpreted to be a limitless right. When an individual’s practice of faith, no matter how sincere, infringes on the rights of someone else, it can be curbed.

“Religious liberty as put forth in the First Amendment is a shield for protecting all, not a sword for injuring others,” Freeman observes.

He adds, “As Thomas Jefferson pointedly opined: ‘It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’ The free exercise of religion called for by ‘Return America’ may not pick the pockets or break the legs of North Carolinians. But if our faith communities do not carefully follow public health and safety guidelines as they move toward resuming public gatherings, it may cause harm or even take the lives of our members and our neighbors, who we are commanded to love.”

Freeman’s piece is a compelling reminder that while religious freedom is a cherished right of the American people, it must never become a license to do harm. We’re going to need wisdom like his in the weeks and months to come.

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