by Brian Grim, President, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
A young mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer at an advanced stage. Her family prayed for healing, as many families would do. Her father, however, prayed a different prayer. He came back to the family and said he knew she would be fine.
Some weeks later the cancer was gone. Completely gone. A miracle. His wife asked him how he was so sure that she would be cured. He said that he’d prayed that the cancer would come to him and spare their daughter. That same year, cancer claimed his life.
The beginning point for core values, for me, is such love. Not that I can say that I would have prayed that same prayer, but a love that lays one’s life down for others is the touchstone for all values.
In my faith tradition, a scripture passage quoting Jesus captures this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)
The call of love is even more challenging. In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:43-44, 46a)
Such love is the beginning point for a robust approach to religious freedom. From that flows three core values.
First, religious freedom begins with our neighbors’ religious freedom, not our own.
In The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Violence in the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press 2011), we noted that an important indication of religious freedom in a country is when people consider that religious freedom for others is as important as religious freedom for themselves.
In analyzing data from the Pew Research Center, there was on average a 14-point “religious intolerance gap” between the number of people who consider freedom for “their own religion” very important and the number who consider freedom for “religions other than their own” very important. That is the space where religious freedom withers.
From my own faith perspective, this makes sense. The two greatest commandments are to fully love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31). And when a cheeky lawyer challenged Jesus about who is our neighbor, Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It’s the story of foreigner with a foreign religion showing love and mercy to a gravely injured stranger who was striped and left to die in the middle of a road as his religious compatriots passed him by.
Put another way, helping people of other faiths and beliefs have full religious freedom is the road to religious freedom for oneself as well.
Second, judge not lest we be judged.
The religious intolerance gap mentioned above is not the only threat to religious freedom, so is the religious hypocrisy gap. Any successful program of religious freedom must bridge this gap by first, as Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5)
In a recent talk by Sue Warnke at the 2021 National Faith@Work Conference, she shared how business students at a major secular California university were immediately drawn into a positive discussion of workplace religious freedom when she began by acknowledging the harm religion has done in some people’s lives.
In other words, defending religious freedom is not the same thing as defending religion.
Third, make peace as first recourse rather than litigate.
“Blessed are the meek … the merciful … the peacemakers” are part of the Beatitudes that kick off the Sermon on the Mount. These qualities provide humble and powerful approaches to advancing religious freedom.
Religious freedom is frequently seen primarily as a legal issue, and indeed I work with many lawyers who also work for religious freedom. However, when litigation replaces discussion and the core values espoused in this article, it’s often too late for religious freedom to become a matter of shared consensus. (See Matthew 5:25-26)
One way that I have put energy into this approach is to reach out to and discuss with people in the LGBTQ+ community ways in which religious freedom brings benefit to them. This is perhaps the most sensitive area today, which makes discussion all the more important.
I am not alone in this. Top companies across America ranging from Salesforce to Texas Instruments have found positive interactions are the norm between their Pride employee resource groups (ERGs) and their faith ERGs. For example, at a Salesforce Faithforce event called Multiple Closets, Jewish, Muslim and Christian persons who were also LGBTQ+ shared their personal stories of ‘coming out of both closets’ – both as LGBTQ+ and people of faith. And they simply shared their stories.
When we focus on loving our neighbor without judging and working for peace through meaningful personal discussions, there is much hope for religious freedom.