Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why Christians Should Care About Religious Freedom for Muslims

Chelsea Langston


Religious freedom has a perception problem in our country. The term has become shorthand for a license to discriminate, a vehicle of self-interest, and sadly, even anti-gay. For years, many of us in the principled pluralist community have tried to use the language of religious freedom, rather than religious liberty, because liberty has its own baggage, carrying assumptions of anti-government and pro-individual rights. In spite of this, religious freedom is just as loaded a term today.

If you Google “religious freedom state laws,” you get many hits for news articles with “anti-gay” in the title. When I talk with Christian college students, I see the drastic difference between how older millennials and younger millennials understand religious freedom, even though fewer than ten years separate us. The older millennials, now closer to thirty, came of age when religious freedom was still a bipartisan, unifying force in America. Christian college students today are in an environment where religious freedom is conflated with bigotry and, frankly, with old white Evangelical males. This may explain why today’s Christian young adults react negatively to the notion of religious freedom and all of its rhetorical baggage.

So, can religious freedom be salvaged both as a term and, more importantly, as an American ideal? I offer a hopeful “Yes!” To that end, a necessary first step is to divorce religious freedom from anti-pluralist approaches to public policy and public discourse. For religious freedom to still be seen as a bedrock value in American life, Christian individuals and organizations must advocate for religious freedom for all, particularly for the Muslim community, with whom they likely have the most profound difference.

Contemporary Realities, Historic Context

Last month, President Obama delivered a speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore after his first visit to a US mosque. Although much controversy surrounded this visit, the president’s remarks provide us with some important principles to consider as we think about how we uphold religious freedom in our country for all faiths.

The president focused on religious tolerance in general, but also highlighted the important role of religious institutions in American society. He said, “This mosque… [has] been part of this city for nearly half a century. You serve thousands of families — some who’ve lived here for decades as well as immigrants from many countries who’ve worked to become proud American citizens.” He described the Society’s diverse functions and services: house of worship, early childhood education provider, sports and recreation facility, and, yes, even host of Boy Scout troops, showing the myriad ways in which religious institutions serve their own faith adherents as well as the larger community. Obama further stated, “There’s a health clinic that serves the needy, regardless of their faith. And members of this community are out in the broader community, working for social justice and urban development.” 

The president also emphasized America’s long history, going back to our founding fathers, of holding religious freedom and religious diversity to be foundational American values: “[W]hen enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.” Obama explained that over 200 years ago, followers of Islam were regularly known as Mahometans. Obama referenced the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, stating that Jefferson penned this piece of legislation “to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — ‘the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.’” 

The president went on to say that we should not only tolerate diverse faiths and the expressions of those faiths, but we should recognize what Thomas Jefferson did, that “religious liberty is essential not only to protect religion but because religion helps strengthen our nation.” 

Policy Implications

Two important truths emerge from these remarks that can inform our understanding as we bolster religious freedom for faith institutions of varied faiths across the country: 

1. The exercise of religion extends beyond individual, private worship within a church, mosque, or synagogue and out into the community. Even within a house of faith, the institutional practice of a faith entails providing services to the faith community and, often, to those who do not share the same faith.  

2. Christian Americans and Jewish Americans do not necessarily need to find common theological ground with Muslim Americans in order to share a mutual desire to expand religious freedom to apply beyond worship. Diverse faith institutions across America, whether Muslim or Greek Orthodox or Evangelical, already know this to be true: religious freedom must extend beyond protecting the explicitly religious aspects of houses of worship and faith-based organizations. Religious freedom must protect the faith-shaped services these faith institutions provide to their members and to their communities.

But why do some Christians particularly have a hard time extending this religious freedom beyond ourselves? For many years, Evangelicals and Catholics perpetuated a cold war because necessity did not demand them to unite forces. Now we live in a society where all religious beliefs and practices that reflect an expression of conservative social and sexual ethics are looked upon with suspicion. For some time now, Catholics and Evangelicals and even Mormons have collaborated and formed coalitions to advance their shared religious freedom concerns, despite their significant theological differences.

So why has the Christian community not reached out to Muslim faith organizations with the same systematic intentionality? If the answer to this question was a Facebook status, it would most definitely be “It’s complicated.” For one, Christian faith communities must consider the public perception issues within their own bases. When faith and political leaders pander to the fears of their bases, base policy positions like “Let’s kick out all the Muslims” persevere. Additionally, people of faith must recognize that we aren’t entirely comfortable with how p0licy that protects religious freedom may mean interacting with and protecting religious practices that are in direct contradiction to our own.

But there is an important connection between allowing institutional religious expressions to flourish and the strengthening of our communities and our country. Our nation is best when it acknowledges the diversity of our faith-based service organizations, each committed to serving its neighbors in uniquely faith-shaped ways. Our nation is stronger when people have a choice of services, including ones that have a religious dimension, so that they can find services that meet their unique needs. Our nation is stronger when we honor the organizational freedoms of religious relief and development entities, whether World Vision, Islamic Relief USA, or Catholic Relief Services, which serve because their respective faiths call them to serve a certain need, in a distinctive way.

Religious Difference and Common Freedom

So how should people and institutions of faith respond in a time of tangible threats to the religious freedom of Muslims, mosques, and Islamic institutions? In January, forty faith leaders from a variety of backgrounds came together in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania to sign a statement addressing the mounting threats to the religious freedom of Muslims. The statement did not assert that people of different religions all worship the same God, nor did it try to downplay the very real differences that exist in the fabric of the American religious landscape. Rather, the statement used religious difference as a launching pad toward common freedom. The statement, in part, reads: “[T]he First Amendment stands as the foundation upon which has been built the world’s most religiously diverse nation, and . . . infringing the religious liberty of one group diminishes the rights of all.”

The statement by Lehigh Valley faith leaders also focused on the importance of respecting the variety of religious institutions in their community, as well as the private faith of individuals, “We affirm the values that we cherish as Americans: free inquiry, respectful encounter with others, tolerance of diverse viewpoints, and peaceful co-existence among a wide array of religious bodies, groups, and organizations.” 

This statement could be a model for religious leaders across the country to affirm the religious freedom of individuals and institutions that hold beliefs and practices that are different from their own. In a time when religious freedom undoubtedly has a perception problem, particularly when brandished by certain Christian communities, perhaps the most important thing we can do is to assert our recognition that religious freedom is not just for ourselves but also for our neighbors, not just for our own faith-based organizations but also for the religious organizations of all faiths.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What are some assumptions or fears holding you back from fully supporting religious freedom for “the other,” including individuals and organizations that express their beliefs in a manner very different than your own?
  2. What are the benefits of promoting religious freedom for organizations different from our own? How can we do this in a meaningful, substantive way? How do we avoid forming transactional relationships with faith groups of other faiths to just advance our own policy agendas?


- Chelsea Langston is the Director of Equipping and Membership at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of the Center for Public Justice. She holds a JD from the University of Michigan and is a licensed attorney by the State Bar of Michigan.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”