Recently, I watched as my son went through a simple test of his faith. It has to do with a job that he has and his simple display of faith in wearing a cross around his neck when acting as an agent for his employer. The cross is not tremendously noticeable being made of steel nails hung from a simple leather strap or thong. It is humble and unassuming.
The challenge came from a customer who felt uncomfortable because the promotional material that my son participates in creating features him, wearing his cross. Because my son works for the state university where he attends, this customer felt like somehow having an agent of the university promoting school events and activities while wearing a personal religious symbol was somehow a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
My son has grown up in a Christian home, where his faith has been nourished, but mostly attended public schools, but always in communities where Christians were in a majority. While he has felt pressure from friends and acquaintances who were “mostly Christianish” but who did not reacted differently to the message of Christ. This was the first time he felt challenged by someone who felt offended by his display of faith.
His initial reaction was somewhat indignant, “I have just as much right to my belief as he [the customer] has to his unbelief.” And that is how we often react, when someone from a minority position, challenges a majority religious display. I don’t want to see the nativity scene in the public square, etc.
My son had to decide, first, whether his Job was at risk, and whether he felt that that kind of a display of religious faith was worth losing a job over. He talked to his boss, who was supportive of his freedom of expression, but they have to be careful about university policy and potential for legal action. That is an ongoing discussion.
But is this challenge an attack on his faith, or a good faith expression of offense by the customer. A case could be made that any person doing my son’s job could be free to any form of religious expression, regardless of their beliefs or unbelief, that the university has no reason to censor its students or employees. A question could be asked, if the religious symbol was not Christian, but some minority religion – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish whether this customer would be offended in the same way, or is it only because we live in a nation where the culture is mostly Christian, that the offense is stronger for the minorities.
There appears to me to be a fine line between true offense, and simply advocating for the removal of any religious affiliation for anything that is funded by our tax dollars. The issue is that the establishment “clause” of first amendment to the US Constitution, which basically forbids the establishment of any “official” state religion was designed to promote religious freedom.
The first amendment text:
It means we are free to participate in whatever religion or faith we want (or no religion at all) without fear of persecution or government interference. It was a reaction to where our forefathers came from, Europe, where religion was closely affiliated with the tyranny and monarchical forms of government that existed. More recently, however, many who chose not to participate, themselves a small minority, have been advocating the idea that any religious expression that is backed by public funds, displayed on public lands, or promoted by those holding public office is somehow in violation of something that they call the “separation of church and state”.
The free exercise clause is found immediately after the establishment clause. This says that we are all free to exercise any religion or faith that we the people want, including no religion at all. It has been interpreted as saying that the government should not prefer any religion over another, nor religion over non religion and vice versa.
I personally feel like for the past few years there have been a lot of people advocating that anyone who works for the government who is a spokes person in any way shape or form has somehow lost the right to express their own religious belief on the job. This is a right that everyone else enjoys. As a private sector employee of a large corporation, I am not prevented from displaying a Bible on my desk, or from having a religious picture on my wall. Why should those freedoms be denied to anyone who is employed by any agency that is funded by the public?
What does this mean for us as Christian believers? We should be sensitive to our position in the majority, and recognize that that position makes those in the minority uncomfortable. When we watch as in other areas of the world Christians are persecuted by religious majorities of other faiths, we should be sensitized to the perspective of the minority faith practitioners in our own area.