Supporting the Freedom of Religious Expression for All in Higher Education

I can remember the first time I attended a training session about religious diversity on campus.

I was a new resident assistant (RA) preparing to start my third year as a student at a private, nonsectarian university. The residential life staff had gathered together to learn about and to discuss diversity on campus; one of the topics on the agenda was that of religious differences.

As I listened to others talk about their religious identities, I wondered whether or not I would be endorsing religious perspectives other than my own if I did such things as create a bulletin board to display information about various religions, plan an educational program about different religious identities, and/or make an accommodation for someone who embraced another religious worldview and who wanted to participate in a religious observance.

I genuinely cared about and valued my friends at the university who did not share my religious worldview and who wanted to express their own. At the same time, as a Christian, I wanted to remain true to my own religious beliefs. I wondered if it was possible to do both.

I came to believe that it is possible.

And now, as one who studies religion and spirituality in higher education, I am often asked to present training sessions about religious expression to groups of students and staff representing diverse religious identities and perspectives. As a Christian, I can confidently approach these discussions with the knowledge that the concept of freedom of religious expression aligns with biblical principles. And, as one who believes in an all-powerful God, I am certain that God will not get lost in the midst of religiously-diverse environments.

As Christians, we can believe that Jesus is the only way to God and still be supportive of the freedom of religious expression by others in higher education.

Joshua provides us with an example of how to maintain our own allegiance to God and to encourage others to serve God, while also respecting others’ right to choose their religious beliefs and expression (Joshua 24:14-15). The first thing that Joshua did when addressing the tribes of Israel at Shechem was to encourage them to serve God. Then, he reminded them that if serving God seemed “undesirable” to them, they had the right to choose to serve another god (e.g., to espouse a different religious belief system). Finally, he stated that regardless of their choices, he would continue to serve God. We, as Christians in higher education, can follow Joshua’s example.

In so doing, it is helpful to remember the following where religious expression is concerned:

  1. The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution grants people of all religious identities the freedom of religious expression.

Though most Christians know about this amendment and the implications of it, and I believe that most of us are well-intentioned in our use of this freedom, I am concerned that sometimes we might think and/or act as if it should only apply to us. It is helpful to remember that this constitutional right extends to all others, even those with whom we disagree. Moreover, because we enjoy and appreciate the ability to freely exercise our faith, it would be hypocritical of us to want to deny others the right to the same freedom.

  1. Choosing not to support others’ freedom to practice their religion is oppressive.

A certain degree of Christian privilege exists in higher education largely due to the number of people who self-identify as Christian. Most of the time, though not all of the time, this privilege paves the way for those of us who are Christians to practice our faith without much resistance. If we communicate a desire to prevent others from expressing their religious beliefs, or even if we remain silent when others are advocating for this right, we are, in effect, oppressing those who seek the same freedom that we enjoy.

  1. Supporting others’ freedom to express their religion is not the same as endorsing religious beliefs with which we disagree.

By supporting everyone’s freedom to express their religious beliefs, we are promoting something that God values: the freedom to choose what we believe. So, in essence, we are promoting human volition, not endorsing a particular set of religious beliefs that contradict our own.

As Christians, we have the opportunity to profess our faith in Christ by how we interact with those of other religious identities on campus. Let’s demonstrate how to genuinely love and respect others in higher education by supporting their right to express their religious beliefs – even if we disagree with those perspectives.

And, let’s remain thankful for the freedom that we have to express our faith in Christ.

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