A Religious Freedom Wake-up Call

Jaziah B. Masters July/August 2023

Religious liberty is a long-standing American value. Yet this freedom to worship or act upon religious conscience without unnecessary interference by the government is also a principle taken for granted, misused, and underappreciated. There is growing concern that this trend will continue or worsen. 

The latest edition of the Religious Freedom Index shows that some aspects of religious freedom are controversial, and the divide often breaks down by generation.1 When it comes to the intersection of religious belief, law, and public policy, Gen Z (a group generally defined as individuals born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s) is skeptical. Young people today seem to be suspicious of policies that protect the right of people of faith to hold unpopular or controversial beliefs.

A Break With the Past

As a young person and a faith-based advocate, I am intrigued. Because religion touches on so many aspects of public life, religious liberty invites us to consider how people with vastly different systems of beliefs can live peacefully together. In my advocacy role at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), I often explain this to younger audiences. Our historic faith-based organization is dedicated to protecting faith freedom for all. Since 1936 BJC has advocated the golden rule of religious freedom: Do not ask the government to promote your religion if you do not want the government to promote somebody else’s religion.

But younger audiences are not so quick to defer to the high value of our country’s religious liberty tradition. Instead, they are more likely to ask, Why I would advocate for religious liberty in light of all the negative actions done in the name of religion and the pain it inflicts on others?

I attribute this hesitation to coming of age during incredibly disruptive times: global recessions, the COVID-19 pandemic, growing awareness about climate change, the summer of racial unrest, historic income inequality, and an attack on the U.S. Capitol, to name a few. Is there any wonder that younger generations are questioning—that they are far less deferential to—the assumptions and narratives to which Americans historically cling?

There is also the reality of increasing racial and religious diversity. In the United States our youngest generations are incredibly diverse. According to Pew Research Center, Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation. This demographic shift requires reconsideration of the status quo. The next generation cannot be assumed to understand and approach religious liberty in the same way as previous, more homogeneous generations.

Room for All

So what is the alternative? What is the future we would like to see? What is our collective goal? The Religious Freedom Index suggests that religious pluralism is that vision. Of all the dimensions measured, religious pluralism enjoys robust support from every generation. In fact, Gen Z’s score “helped push support for pluralism to its highest point yet.”

The peaceful coexistence of diverse people in this country is something long strived for. We should want a nation in which all can worship freely while respecting the differences of our fellow humans. Religious liberty is at the foundation of that picturesque vision.

This presents an opportunity for everyone. Perhaps the religious liberty vision of prior generations needs to broaden. A principle articulated as a bold declaration of a God-given inalienable right has been dimmed by human-made social confines. Those who claim the Christian religion and religious liberty have often used both to protect and complement the powerful, the privileged, and the status quo.

Today there is much attention on the declining numbers of youth participation in church and the waning support of religious liberty. However, I don’t see enough attention to the prospect of another generation inheriting an American ideal infected with white supremacy, racism, and other social evils. Who would want to inherit something incompatible with their personhood?

Achieving an understanding of religious liberty worthy of being passed down to the next generation requires some intersectional thinking and an honest reckoning by those who hold this fundamental right most dearly. It means acknowledging that religious liberty, like virtually all other aspects of American society, has been affected by white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia. It means disrupting the traditional narratives of religion that ignore the reality of historically marginalized people. It means emphasizing the responsibility that comes with liberty.

The BJC Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation is a leader in this space.2 With its educational programs and resources, we are expanding and deepening our understanding of religious liberty with a broader justice lens. We know that we must take an honest look at how faith freedom intersects with other freedoms and how it has been denied to many in our country. Doing so is essential to achieving a faith freedom nation. 

BJC is also the lead organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, a movement making clear the distinction between our identity as Christians and our identity as Americans.3 Christian nationalism is the antithesis of a faith freedom nation, and there is no doubt that its current manifestations contribute to younger generations’ skepticism of religion.

A Fresh Vision

The future of religious liberty is at risk, but the threat is not an outside force or demographic change. People of faith have not always embraced a religious freedom that is inclusive of the diversity of experience. A robust and prophetic understanding of this principle, however, must recognize individuals and their complexities.

As an advocacy professional, I am driven by a compelling vision of what this country should look like. My advocacy is informed by faith rooted in a religious idea that all are entitled to their full personhood. Religious liberty does not stand in the way of achieving that goal. It is at the very heart and foundation of this work. Religious liberty is compatible with racial justice. Religious liberty is compatible with LGBTQ rights. Religious liberty is compatible with pluralistic democracy.

We cannot rely on old assumptions about religious freedom to inspire the commitment we seek. To reach new generations, we must acknowledge new realities. For me, it means embodying the change I wish to see and live it. That is my challenge, and that is how I hope to reach the next generation of religious liberty advocates.

1 2022 Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment, 4th ed., Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

2 For more on this center, see bjconline.org/center.

3 For more on this initiative, see christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org.

Article Author: Jaziah B. Masters

Jaziah B. Masters is the advocacy and outreach manager at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC). He coordinates a variety of education and advocacy efforts that educate, engage, and empower BJC’s supporters, expanding the base of support for religious liberty.