Religious Liberty Defined

America has reaffirmed its commitment to religious freedom and is again recognizing the vital moral and spiritual role religion plays in both our public and private lives.

We are confronted by two strikingly different views about the proper role of religion in public life.

Our heritage of religious liberty must be reaffirmed. The increasing religious pluralism in our country beckons us to turn this heritage into a legacy. The aspirations of the Founders – that religion should involve a voluntary response and that government should remain neutral toward religion – must be converted into practical reality.

Are we a Judeo-Christian Nation?

One portrays America as a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. This view wrongly suggests that the Founders never meant to separate the institutions of church and state or to prohibit the establishment of religion. Such a view is historically inaccurate and endangers our common welfare because it uses religion to divide rather than unite the American people.

Are we a nation that shuns faith and the faithful?

This view of religion in public life, inaccurate and dangerous as it is, has gained credence in reaction to another inaccurate and equally damaging view of the proper role of religion in public life. The other view sees religion and religious groups as having a minimal role in – perhaps even being barred from – the vital public discourses we carry on as a democracy. It sees faith-based involvement in the democratic process as violating the principle of church-state separation. It regards religious arguments as naïve and seeks to embarrass any who profess religious motivation for their public positions on political issues. This view denies our country the powerful moral guidance of our religious heritage and discourages many of our brightest and most committed citizens from actively participating in our public life.

Can we avoid either theocratic tendencies or hostility to religion?

As individuals and organizations committed to religious liberty as well as a robust role for religion in public life, we share a different vision about the future: a vision that avoids both the theocratic tendencies on one side and the hostility toward religion associates with the other. “Now more that ever, the United States must maintain its commitment to freedom for persons of all faiths or none.” We are beset by religious and ethnic conflict abroad. Exploding pluralism challenges us a home. At such a time, we must reaffirm our dedication to providing what Roger Williams called a “haven for the cause of conscience.” We agree with Williams that conscience is best guarded by maintaining a healthy distance between the institutions of religion and government. But it is not enough to reaffirm these truths. We must incorporate them into our private lives as well into our public policies. ‡

‡ A Shared Vision: Religious Liberty in the 21st Century (The Interfaith Alliance)


Ferrell Foster
Director, Ethics & Justice, Christian Life Commission

(512) 473-2288