The Misunderstood Line of Separation of Church and State

“I won’t talk about my faith at work due to separation of church and state.”

“I keep my faith to myself while at work, because I don’t want to cross that line.”

Faculty, staff, and students who are employed in public colleges and universities often say such things. While I deeply respect their desire to abide by the law, I have learned that in many cases their understanding of the law is flawed.

Many who work at public colleges and universities are confused about their religious expression rights on campus. 

So, some remain unnecessarily silent about their faith while at work.

Much of their confusion is based on a misunderstanding of the phrase “separation of church and state” – a phrase that seems to regularly find its way into discussions of religion among employees in public higher education. Related to that sentiment is the idea of inappropriately “crossing the line” – referring to the “line” separating church and state.

Some have misinterpreted the phrase “separation of church and state” to mean that they are not allowed to talk about their faith in the workplace at all.

While people of other religious identities might be hesitant to express their faith in the workplace, Christians seem to be most likely to frame their reluctance in this way.

Let me clarify the meaning of the oft-repeated phrase.

Thomas Jefferson actually penned the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1801 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. His intent was to advocate for religious liberty that is free from governmental tampering, not to suggest that governmental agencies should be free from religious expression.

Thomas Jefferson suggested that the state should be kept out of the church – not vice versa.

In a previous blog post, I shared reasons why we should support the freedom of religious expression for all in higher education. In that post, I made brief comments about that constitutional right but did not take the time to thoroughly unpack it. Given the misunderstanding surrounding this important topic, some clarification is needed.

The First Amendment provisions related to religious expression in public higher education institutions are summed up in two clauses: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”

This is the establishment clause.

It means that public colleges and universities cannot advocate for one religion over another, nor should they advocate for religion over non-religion. They must strive to maintain religious neutrality.

This clause does not mean that we must all keep silent about our religious beliefs. Employees who talk about their faith at work are not “establishing” a religion on campus as described in the First Amendment.

That said, when we find ourselves in conversations about religion while at work, it never hurts to state that our views are our own views – not those of the college or university at which we are employed.

Congress shall make no law. . . prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This is the free exercise clause.

It means that public colleges and universities are not allowed to create any policy that is designed to suppress the expression of religion on campus.

So, there is no hard-and-fast “line” that keeps those of us who work at public colleges and universities from talking about our faith at work.

However, because we are employees, there are some legal restrictions related to how and when we do so. Legal restrictions should not be our only consideration, though.

Those who are striving to follow Jesus in higher education should also consider biblical guidelines when thinking about sharing their faith at work.

For that reason, let me offer a few thoughts for consideration:

  1. Christians are called to obey God and to spread the message of Christianity.

There is not one place on earth where God does not want Christians to share their faith. By implication, our workplace is included in the “Go into all the world” directive.

As the late Dallas Willard so aptly stated, “If discipleship does not relate to your job, where you spend most of your time, you’ve left your life behind.”

  1. One way that Christians obey God is by submitting to the governing authorities.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “the authorities that exist have been established by God” and that “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”

I believe that most of the opportunities that employees at public colleges and universities have to talk about their religious faith on campus can happen in ways that easily align with the directives of the “governing authorities” (e.g., the First Amendment and campus guidelines).

And, that is exactly what we should strive to do.

  1. There may be situations in which the biblical convictions held by Christians compel them to act in ways that challenge the directives of the governing authorities.

Recall that when Peter and John went before the Sanhedrin they were commanded not to speak or to teach in the name of Jesus. Clearly, they were placed in a situation where they had to decide whether or not to obey the governing authorities. To that command, they replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

And, there are a number of other examples in the Bible of people who were compelled, in certain situations, to obey God in ways that challenged the directives of the governing authorities. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are among them – as is Daniel.

So, while there is no hard-and-fast “line” of separation of church and state, we might find ourselves in situations at work where we feel compelled to share our faith, but we, or others, question the appropriateness of doing so.

In such situations, how should we decide when to talk about our faith and when to keep silent?

We should rely upon the wisdom and discernment that comes from the Holy Spirit.

And, we can remind ourselves that God will be with us and will give us the words to say as we speak when He leads us to do so. He will also be our defense if and when our zeal for others to know about the good news of Christ compels us to speak of Him in less-than-ideal situations at work.

As we walk in faithful obedience, we can trust Him.




The Temptation of Self-Promotion

I didn’t feel quite right about what I was doing as I was typing within the chat portion of the computer screen during the professional webinar. But, I felt compelled to correct the presenter. So, I did. I informed her that she had actually given credit to the wrong person for the term that she just described to the audience. Rather, I am the one who coined that term in my research. Thankfully, I did not use italicized font in the actual chat message. But, I might as well have done so, since that is how I stated it in my head while typing it out.

For the next few days, I felt angst over what I had done. It was a deep, unsettled feeling that neither sleep nor time alleviated.

I knew what I needed to do next.

I confessed my act of self-promotion to God, and I asked Him to change my heart so that I’m less tempted to act in such a way again in the future. Then, I sent an apology not only to the presenter who had misspoken, but also to her two co-presenters who were aware of the situation. It was only then that I felt relief from my angst, and I once again experienced the peace of God that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

I wish I could say this was the only time that I was ever tempted to act in a self-promoting way or that this is how I have always handled my mistakes. But, I can’t. What I can say is that this experience provided an opportunity to reflect on the temptation of self-promotion in hopes of better recognizing and resisting this temptation the next time it rears its ugly head.

Even though self-promotion is woven into the fabric of the culture in academia, followers of Jesus are called to live differently.

Christians are not supposed to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2), but rather, to resist the temptation to do so.

All of us working and/or studying in higher education are led to believe that we must let others know about our accomplishments – that it is our job to do so – or else we may be overlooked for promotions or other exciting opportunities. Or, we might feel a sense of competition with our colleagues or classmates that compels us to self-promote as a means of attempting to convince others of our worth. And, let’s be honest. Social media makes this temptation so much harder to resist. Do we post our own accomplishments on Facebook and/or Twitter? Do we “share” and/or “retweet” positive comments that others say about us? If so, why?

When facing the temptation of self-promotion, each of us would be well-served to interrogate the motives of our heart.

Why are we wanting to let others know about our accomplishments? What are we hoping to gain from doing so? Are our motives pure and honorable, or are they impure and selfish? Remember that Christians should not do anything out of “selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Philippians 2:3).

In addition to encouraging honest self-reflection when facing the temptation of self-promotion, I want to offer a few other considerations for those of us seeking to follow Jesus in higher education.

  1. It is possible to accurately – yet humbly – represent our work.

Most who work in higher education are required, on an annual basis, to submit some form of self-evaluation for the purposes of accountability and merit determinations. When asked to provide evidence of our work, all of us should certainly oblige. This is quite a different process than initiating self-promoting activities on our own.

So, yes, let’s be sure to list all of our professional positions, publications, and presentations on our resumes and curriculum vitas. And, let’s communicate our accomplishments and honors when asked to do so. But, let’s do so factually and with a heart of humility – without inflating our own importance or that of our work and without unnecessary pomp and circumstance.

Let’s remember the words of Jesus: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

  1. Our work should be praiseworthy, and it is okay to be commended by others for it.

As Paul wrote in his epistle to the Colossians, we should be working with our whole hearts and doing so as if we are actually working for God.

And, it is precisely because we are doing our work for God that it should be top-notch in quality and should be pleasing to our supervisors (if employed on campus) and/or professors (if taking classes). So, for that reason, we should not be surprised if and when others do take note of the quality of our work. And, we are reminded in the Scriptures that even though we should not be praising ourselves, it is okay for others to praise us (Proverbs 27:2).

  1. God sees our work – even if others do not – and we can trust Him to make our work known to others in accordance with His will.

In the Scriptures, Mordecai provides a great example of this truth (Esther 2:19-6:10). Mordecai uncovered a plot by two of King Xerxes’ officers who had conspired to kill the king. He told Queen Esther about the plot, and she reported it to the king. Though the queen gave credit to Mordecai, no official honor was given to him. The only action that was taken at that time was that the incident was recorded in the “book of the annals” – the record of the reign of the king. It would be reasonable to suggest that Mordecai and the role he played in foiling the plot were both seemingly forgotten.

But, nothing is forgotten where God is concerned.

One night – which happened to be the night before Haman planned to have Mordecai killed since he would not show honor to him – the king was suffering from insomnia and decided to have some of his servants read to him out of the book of the annals. It was then that the king realized to the fullest extent what Mordecai had done and determined to honor him for it. Rather than being killed by Haman, Mordecai’s life was spared, and he received great honor from the king.

God has a way of making our good works known to others – in His perfect time and manner. We can trust Him. We do not need to rely on self-promotion to do so. When facing the temptation of self-promotion, let’s remember some of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

“For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18).

Setting Forth the Truth Plainly

I have felt uncomfortable with the approach for a long time, and a recent conversation with some students validated my concerns.

I’m referring to an approach that many well-intentioned Christians have come to believe is the best way to live out the Great Commission. The approach involves taking the time to “develop trusting friendships” with others before explicitly identifying oneself as a Christian and talking about the personal salience of that identity. The assumption is that others will be receptive to hearing about one’s Christian identity, to invitations to attend Christian events (e.g., campus ministry group meetings) and to hearing the Gospel only after a period of time has elapsed in which trust has been established in the friendship.

Despite the good intentions behind it (i.e., introducing others to the One who saved and transformed our lives), such an approach can result in some negative perceptions that can cause more harm than good – and that might actually turn people away from Jesus.

Several international students have shared with me their perceptions that some Christians are only befriending them for the purpose of trying to “recruit” them to Christianity. Similarly, they fear that if they don’t at least pretend to be interested in Christianity, the Christians who have pursued them in friendship will turn their backs on them.

Unfortunately, international students are not the only ones who hold these perceptions. For several years, I have heard similar sentiments expressed by a number of domestic students who are living in residence halls and/or who are involved in fraternity and sorority life.

We need to be aware that a number of students have felt deceived and hurt by the approach used by some Christians to share the Gospel with them.

As students have shared these perceptions and feelings with me, I have been deeply troubled by the ache in their voices and the corresponding pain on their faces.

Perceptions are powerful. Though we cannot control others’ perceptions, we should pay attention to them. And, we can strive to share the Gospel in a way that does not lead to such negative perceptions. To that end, I would like to offer some thoughts for consideration.

  1. We should only make the effort to develop friendships with other people if we truly desire to be their friend – regardless of what they believe or will eventually believe about Christianity.

Otherwise, we may give the impression that we are only interested in others as long as their friendship has the potential to provide us with something (i.e., the opportunity to talk to them about Jesus).

We are called to love others simply because God loves us. We are not to expect anything in return.

Love is authentic. And, people can sense when others are not being genuine. If we make the effort to develop a friendship with someone, let’s be sure it is authentic.

  1. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job – not ours – to prepare people’s hearts to respond to the message of the good news of Jesus.

I have not seen any indication in the Scriptures that we have a role to play in that process. In other words, it’s not up to us to create a condition of receptivity. The Bible does not reflect the idea that we need to first build a friendship with others and then wait until they trust us before we invite them to explore the Christian faith. Jesus did not do that. Neither did Peter or Paul.

For instance, Jesus did not wait and build a “trusting relationship” with the Samaritan woman before He shared His message with her (see John 4).

We do hear about spiritual receptivity in the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13). In that parable, Jesus shared insights as to how the seed would or would not grow, given the type of ground on which it fell. But, He did not say that the sower was responsible for preparing the soil.

Implied in this parable is that the role of the sower is simply to scatter the seed.

  1. Rather than waiting to reveal our faith in Christ until after a friendship has progressed to a certain level, we should be open and honest about our faith from the very beginning. 

If being a Christian is really the most important aspect of our lives, and if we really want others to hear the good news of Jesus, there is no reason why others should not know those things very early on in the development of our friendships.

Such a forthright approach aligns with what we are told to do in the Scriptures. Right after Paul reminded the church in Corinth of the glorious nature of the message of Christ, he stated:

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception (emphasis is mine), nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly (emphasis is mine) we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6 – NIV).

This same passage in the English Standard Version of the Bible contains different but equally powerful language: We are to renounce “disgraceful, underhanded ways,” and we are to “refuse to practice cunning.” Rather, our approach should be characterized by “open statement of the truth.”

While we know that many will be offended by the message of the Gospel, the approach we use to share the message should not be the cause of offense. 

We should not do anything that leads others to believe that we are being deceptive or hurtful.

Instead, let’s spend our time truly loving others and being open and honest about our faith in Christ while doing so.

Let’s set forth the truth plainly, pray for others, and leave the rest to God.



Taking the Time to Listen

All of us were silent for a few seconds after she asked the question.

It happened while we were on a short break in one of my classes. An international student asked the rest of the class why so many Americans greet other people by asking “How are you?” but then don’t wait for a detailed response. We sheepishly smiled, but no one had a good answer.

The student’s question remained fixed in my mind for a number of days. I kept thinking about how, as Christians who work and/or study in higher education, we can – and should – do better. And, I kept thinking about what could happen if we did do better.

What could happen if we not only noticed others and asked about their well-being but also took the time to listen to their responses?

Joseph did just that. According to Genesis 40, Joseph was falsely accused and put into prison with Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker. The Scriptures tell us that one night, the cupbearer and the baker both had dreams. Joseph did not initially know that, but the next day, he did notice that they were sad.

He could have just ignored their sadness. But, instead, he leaned into their situation with a genuine interest in their well-being.

He asked them, “Why do you look so sad today?”

Then, he took the time to listen to their responses.

Those actions, on the part of Joseph, led to a series of amazing events (see Genesis 41). For instance, Joseph was eventually given the opportunity to be used by God to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. That experience led to his attainment of a significant leadership role in Egypt. In that role, he was used by God to lead the way in preparing for a severe famine. As a result of those preparations, many people survived the famine.

His example provides us with some important insights as we interact with others in higher education. 

  1. Joseph demonstrated that it is possible to maintain a focus on others’ well-being even while experiencing our own challenging circumstances.

Rather than focusing on his own circumstances of being in prison, Joseph lifted his eyes and looked at the others around him. He noticed them. He asked about them.

How often do we, in higher education, get so focused on the challenges that we face in our own work and/or study that we fail to take the time to reach out to others?

  1. Joseph’s willingness to listen led to a discussion that opened a door for him to be used of God in a way that resulted in many other such opportunities.

Had Joseph not taken the time to listen to the cupbearer and the baker share about why they were sad, he would not have known about the two dreams. Then, he probably would not have had the privilege of being used by God to interpret those dreams.

Though we know that God can accomplish His will in any way that He wants, I have to wonder how the events of Joseph’s life might have been different had he not taken the time to listen.

I also have to wonder how the events of our lives, and the lives of those around us in the colleges and universities in which we work and/or study, might be different if we took the time to listen. 

  1. Joseph expressed his confidence in God’s ability to intervene even before he knew all of the details of the situation.

Even before the cupbearer and the baker shared the details of their dreams with him, Joseph expressed confidence that God could provide the interpretation.

And, God did come through. He gave Joseph the interpretation for each of the dreams.

How often do we listen to the needs and desires of others in higher education with a confident expectation in God’s ability to intervene in powerful ways?

As Christians, if we viewed our interactions with others as opportunities to allow God to work in and through us for the sake of His Kingdom, perhaps we would be more willing to engage with others beyond the initial – and sometimes rote and superficial – greetings.

Perhaps we would be more willing to take the time to truly listen.

Let’s follow Joseph’s example and then wait with confident expectation to see how God works in and through our conversations with others.



Letting Our Voices Be Heard

When I was younger, a debilitating combination of shame and shyness frequently silenced me. While at school, I intentionally averted my eyes away from those of my teachers, and from most of my classmates, in an effort to discourage conversation. My actions at church were similar. The result was that some with whom I spent time in one or more of the same social circles probably never actually heard the sound of my voice in spite of the many hours we spent together.

It was only after I became a Christian, near the end of my first semester in college, that I had the desire to let others hear my voice.

It was only then – after I had experienced the presence and power of God in a way that freed me from my deep shame and extreme shyness and that transformed me in so many other ways – that I felt like I had something worthwhile to say. And, it was only then that I felt confident enough to say it.

I wanted others to know what Christianity is all about. And, I wanted to speak out about how my life had changed in such a profound way.

Christians should want to talk about those things, right?

Yes, we should. But, sometimes we are reluctant to let our voices be heard even when we have been invited to do so.

Why do we sometimes hesitate to speak up?

Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of every opportunity that we have to talk about the meaning of Christianity and to share about how our lives have changed because of Christ?

Recently, I spent some time reflecting on those questions in preparation for the recording of a podcast concerning Christian involvement in religious diversity activities on campus (e.g., interfaith dialogues). I remembered a time when God called Moses to serve as His spokesperson in what would surely involve several challenging discussions with others who might not eagerly embrace his message (see Exodus 3 and 4). Moses’ conversation with God demonstrates a few of the reasons why Christians might be reluctant to engage in religious diversity initiatives on campus.

1. We do not feel qualified to be a voice for Christ.

“Who am I that I should go?” asked Moses.

This was Moses’ initial response when God told him that He was sending him to the Israelites and then to Pharaoh. Later in the conversation, Moses reiterated his feelings of inadequacy when he said, “I’m not an eloquent speaker.”

Like Moses, some Christians might not feel qualified to be a voice for Christ on campus. Perhaps some believe that others on campus are better suited for representing Christ in religious diversity activities or that others would be more eloquent when speaking about Christ in such contexts. We must remember, though, that if God calls us to something, He will equip us for that work. And, sometimes, as in the case of Moses, He will provide others to assist us.

2. We are concerned that we will not know how to answer people’s questions.

“What do I say when others ask…?” Moses asked God.

In essence, he wanted to know in advance how he should respond to a particular question that would likely be asked of him.

Some Christians probably have a similar desire when thinking about engaging in religious diversity initiatives on campus. It would be so much easier if we knew how each conversation would progress prior to engaging in it. After all, such insight would give us the opportunity to prepare answers for challenging questions about Christianity that others might ask us during the experience.

While studying the Scriptures in an effort to have answers to those hard questions is an important aspect of Christian discipleship, we will never fully be prepared for every possible question that might come up. Even so, we are still called to share the Gospel and to speak up about Christ’s work in our lives and in the lives around us.

3. We are afraid that others will not take us seriously.

“What if they will not believe me or listen to me?” Moses asked. “What if they say, ‘God did not appear to you?’”

In response to Moses’ concerns, God demonstrated several ways that He would provide evidence to others that He had, indeed, spoken to Moses. If He provided such support and validation for Moses, He’ll surely do it for us. We are called to speak for and about Him. When we do, He will choose how and when to reveal Himself to others around us.

Perhaps more significant than the evidence that God said He would provide is the truth that He communicated to Moses during the course of their conversation.

God said, “I will be with you…. Who has made your mouth? I have! Go. I will teach you what you are to say.”

We can read example after example in the New Testament of times when the wisdom of the Holy Spirit came through in a profound way as people boldly spoke about Christ (e.g., Acts 6:10). Let’s review and reflect on those examples on a regular basis.

We don’t have to have special qualifications. We don’t need to shy away from structured discussions about religious diversity out of fear that we will not have answers to all of the questions that we might be asked. And, we don’t have to worry about whether or not people will take us seriously, because God can and will reveal Himself as He sees fit.

We just need to remember that the presence and power of the Holy Spirit abides within us and that He will teach us what to say.

Whether you are a student, a faculty member, an administrator, a campus minister, or someone else who is studying and/or working in higher education, take advantage of every invitation to let your voice be heard on campus. If asked to serve on an interfaith panel discussion or on a religious advisory committee, or when given the opportunity to speak with people representing diverse religious, spiritual, and non-religious perspectives, joyfully and humbly agree do to so, if possible.

Let’s be voices for Christ on campus.

The life-changing message of Christ – that we have experienced and that we want others to experience – can only be shared as we let our voices be heard.

The Stumbling Block of Christian Privilege

The words “Unpacking Christian Privilege” were prominently displayed on the bulletin board.

A couple of years ago, a residence hall staff member at Appalachian State University created the bulletin board with the goal of sharing some examples of what many suggest are unearned benefits afforded to those of us who are Christians.

Unfortunately, within a few days of its creation, the bulletin board got vandalized.

I can only hope that a Christian was not the source of the vandalism. Such behavior clearly does not represent the character and wisdom of Christ. But, the incident itself presents an opportunity to consider the following question:

How might Christians think about, and respond to, discussions of Christian privilege?

Some of the unearned benefits that many describe as being reflective of Christian privilege include the ability that Christians have to freely practice our faith on campus without fear of violence, the close alignment between university holidays and Christian holidays, and the prevalence of Christian symbols all around us. These are just a few of the examples that frequently surface during discussions about Christian privilege.

Sure, some could argue that Christian privilege does not permeate all work and learning spaces on nonsectarian campuses. A body of research, including a bit of my own, has revealed that some Christian faculty and students have experienced various forms of marginalization.

But, I am not convinced that arguing about the nature and extent of Christian privilege is productive.

Rather than thinking about Christian privilege as a concept to be debated, perhaps we should consider thinking about it as a stumbling block to be removed.

Christian privilege is a stumbling block. On many levels, it impedes honest and civil dialogue among people holding various religious, spiritual, and non-religious perspectives. We focus on, and stumble over, the issue of Christian privilege to such an extent that thoughtful reflection on the actual substance of our various worldviews is frequently thwarted.

If we hope to have constructive dialogue about worldview differences in higher education, the stumbling block of Christian privilege will need to be removed.

So, what can Christians do to take steps toward removing this stumbling block?

  1. We can humbly acknowledge the Christian privilege that does exist in higher education.

Let’s not deny the privileges that Christians do hold, such as those mentioned earlier. Focusing on where we do hold privilege, rather than debating the extent of Christian privilege, will go a long way toward encouraging honest and civil dialogue.

  1. We can refrain from making assumptions that reflect the Christian worldview.

For instance, when we ask someone where they go to church before we even find out their religious, spiritual, and/or non-religious identity, we are making an assumption that they do, in fact, go to church. Such an assumption is based on the Christian worldview, wherein church attendance is a regular practice.

Also, when we quote the Bible to those who are not Christians in an effort to try to justify a belief, value, or action, we are making an assumption that they view the Bible as authoritative, as Christians do.

Such assumptions, according to many in higher education, reflect Christian privilege.

I’m convinced that our dialogue will be more constructive if we ask others about their beliefs rather than assuming that they think or behave in a way that aligns with the Christian worldview.

  1. When others talk about dismantling Christian privilege, we can choose to believe that they are seeking parity and not trying to persecute Christians.

The suggestion that Christians are being “persecuted” in higher education here in the U.S. is both inaccurate and inflammatory.

Rather, what is happening is that many who are opposed to Christian privilege are striving to balance the playing field, so to speak, in terms of power and privilege. Most people I know who are writing or speaking about Christian privilege are not seeking to persecute Christians.

Rather than embracing a victim mindset, Christians can extend grace to all involved in these discussions and can wholeheartedly try to understand others’ perspectives. 

  1. We should be willing to give up the privileges that we hold as Christians and can ask those who have been offended for practical suggestions as to how to do so.

The Bible is replete with references about denying ourselves, being the last rather than the first, and giving up privileges (e.g., Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 9:35; Philippians 2:5-11; Philippians 3:4-11). It is clear throughout Scripture that Christians should not be seeking to either attain or maintain power or privilege.

The only thing that Christians here in the U.S. should be striving to maintain is the freedom to express our faith.

Our expressed willingness to dismantle Christian privilege provides evidence that we genuinely care about others and about their experiences on campus.

So, let’s help create campus climates wherein students of all religious, spiritual, and non-religious identities are free to express their faith without fear. Let’s be willing to change university holidays, if need be. Let’s be willing to remove the extra Christian symbols that are in some of the common spaces within our nonsectarian colleges and universities. And, let’s carefully consider how other concerns about Christian privilege can be rectified.

Let’s demonstrate to those who are not Christians that we care more about their hearts than about our privileges – that we want to serve, rather than to be served.

After all, that is what Jesus did.

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 many 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.