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Protecting Religious Liberty by Bridging the Relational Gap

If you’re like me, and you’re a Christian college student who’s passionate about how politics and culture impact the world around you, then maybe you’ve noticed a startling cultural change in the last few years. As our culture becomes increasingly less-religious, it is also becoming less tolerant of religion. Fox News contributor and former Democratic Party operative Kirsten Powers’ new book “The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech” discusses how Christians, among others, are being deprived of freedom of expression in academia.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a panel discussion with Powers entitled, “Illiberal Liberalism: The Fate of Religious Freedom in the Public Square,” hosted by Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project. The panel, which consisted of Powers, Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College, drew from diverse political and religious backgrounds, but they all agreed that religious freedom is in danger—particularly on college campuses.

Zuckerman, founder of Pitzer College’s Secular Studies department and self-identified liberal argued that modern progressives have forgotten their roots. The same progressives that championed freedom of expression and welcomed spirited debate are now trying to end dialogue that they consider harmful.

[pq]As Christians, we must listen as much as we speak.[/pq]

Just this past winter, Bill Maher’s controversial remarks regarding Islam prompted a petition for UC Berkeley officials to disinvite Maher from speaking at the University’s fall commencement. Ironically, UC Berkeley earned its legacy for being one of the great bastions of free speech during the countercultural movement of the 1960’s. Now that progressive ideas are hardly countercultural, those on the left find it difficult to extend these same freedoms to conservatives and Christians, who increasingly find themselves on the margins of culture.

Those currently in our cultural centers of power should understand the importance of freedom of expression, including religion better than anybody else. Why is religious freedom suddenly under attack? The panelists pointed to increased tribalization of political ideology on both sides of the aisle. Speaking from experience, Kirsten Powers recalled her own upbringing in a “liberal bubble”. Progressives tend to cluster in city centers and on elite college campuses. Conservatives similarly stay in their suburban enclaves and remain wary of associating with liberals.

This has led to an American society in which conversations with the other side are viewed primarily as an opportunity to gain acceptance from their own ideological community, instead of a chance to better understand the other side.

The only solution to this problem must come from within. As Christians, we must set an example by reestablishing civil dialogue. The slide towards religious persecution will halt only when people from all parts of our pluralistic society can better understand one another. And this will only be achieved by engaging in hard conversations that need to be had, and by listening as much as we speak.

God created us to be unique, but we are all made in His image. We please the Creator when we can reconcile the differences that he has given us in a way that allows us to flourish. We should welcome dignified, respectful discourse with those we don’t agree with, if only for the simple reason that they are fellow image-bearers. If we don’t, we’re not just stifling free expression; we’re dehumanizing those around us.

This doesn’t mean necessarily mean compromising on our principles. In a Christianity Today article published this past April, John Inazu says that “Finding common ground does not require bridging ideological distance through compromise or change. It depends on lessening relational distance through civility, trust, and friendship that emerges through shared experiences”. In America today, the ideological distance is great, but the relational distance is even greater.

Perhaps there is no greater example of what kind of impact civil discourse can make than Bernie Sanders’ appearance at Liberty University in mid-September. Many on both the left and the right questioned the self-described socialist’s decision to speak at one of the largest evangelical universities in the nation. But Sanders didn’t come to score cheap political points.

…[T]hat’s what politicians by and large do. We go out and we talk to people who agree with us. But is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.

The willingness on the part of Sanders to engage a presumably unfriendly audience, and on the part of Liberty for agreeing to host, caused people on all sides of the political spectrum to take notice. HotAir commentator Jazz Shaw remarked:

…[W]hat’s truly remarkable about Sanders’ appearance at the traditionally conservative and heavily religious institution wasn’t what happened so much as what didn’t happen. Neither the faculty nor the student body sought to ban him. There was no boycott.

Sanders and Liberty’s attempt to bridge the relational gap between ideological worlds provides an excellent road map to how we might reverse the trend of the past few years, and afford religious freedom an opportunity to grow. The question is, how will the rest of the faith community respond? How will you respond?