The Southern Baptist Convention was right to pass a resolution at its annual meeting in Houston this month defining religious liberty as “the freedom of the individual to live in accordance with his or her religiously informed values and beliefs,” and citing in support Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”
To be sure, this is considerably better than the rather narrowly construed freedom of worship championed by the current administration. If religion consists only of what we do within the four walls of the church, synagogue or mosque, then safeguarding religious freedom need not accord the adherent much latitude to practise his or her faith, which now becomes a mere private matter with no public import. The Southern Baptist Convention correctly recognizes religion as a genuine way of life.
However, the SBC would do even better to acknowledge the communal dimension of religious observance. A religion is not a designer-label consumer item that individuals can tailor to their own tastes and predilections. Even if we manage to acknowledge the authority of a norm for faith outside of ourselves, many of us continue to assume that it is up to each of us to decide what that norm is, an approach that does nothing to challenge the hegemony of the dominant North American liberal worldview.
By contrast, Christians and other adherents of the major religious traditions live out their respective faiths in community. These communities inevitably set standards for membership, including expectations for faith and standards for life and conduct within the community. A robust public recognition of religious freedom must account for this communal dimension of faith.
To this end the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance is engaging in an important work. Under the leadership of Stanley Carlson-Thies, IRFA aims to safeguard “the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and services of faith-based organizations, enabling them to make their distinctive and best contributions to the common good.” In a society so heavily influenced by individualism, IRFA’s efforts deserve our support as it strives to deepen recognition of the communal character of religious freedom.