Being Clear about “Religious Freedom” and “Freedom of Speech”


These Terms Have Very Specific Meanings. Let’s Call It Out When They are Misused

Two Common Complaints

You may have noticed that it is the political season. Unlike other seasons that run for 3-4 months, political seasons tend to run at least a year or two. Lucky us.

Because it is political season, we are sure to hear (we already are, in fact) two complaints with frequency. Those on the Left have their snivels to be sure. But on these two subjects, it tends to be the Right that complains the loudest. They protest curtailment of their religious freedom and/or freedom of speech.

Both complaints are, for the most part, bogus. Worse, they distort what these values stand for in a way that is damaging and dangerous.

“I am Denied My Religious Freedom”

Like all rights assured by our constitution, this one is not, and never has been, total. But it comes pretty close. You and I, collectively and individually, have near total freedom in this. We may practice what we find religiously significant.

There are limits. Let’s say your faith is old fashioned Mayan. It requires cutting the beating heart out of a sacrificial human. We are going to frown on that. Same for female mutilation, tests that require life threatening actions, and other extremes. But, if you feel compelled by your god to play around with poisonous snakes, have at it. We generally don’t think much of the government getting between you and your religion.

Where we draw a line is in thinking “religious freedom” gives the power to impose your values on others. You may well feel that abortion is murder. In that case, you should not have to have one and you have a right to try to convince others this is the case. You do not have the right to prohibit others from having such a procedure. Those who feel this is deeply personal have rights, too. Core values involved are at play here, for everyone.

Recognizing the Limits of Government

Abortion is a good example of the conundrum such questions raise. The country has been pretty well divided over this question for decades. That tells me it is not something around which we will find consensus. Thus, it is not fertile ground for government dictates. We can all think of any number of “what if” scenarios that quickly move out of black and white solutions. That is the point. Trying to dictate such matters will always fail.

On a less somber level, that is what happened with Prohibition as well. Trying to outlaw human nature almost inevitably fails. People find a way, even at great risk. Other people profit from the work arounds. Legislating morality is the slipperiest of slopes beyond the most fundamental, collective values. At one time, most of this country was under “Blue Laws. No business could be conducted on Sunday, at least not until noon. Some areas have legislated no alcohol communities. Prostitution is generally illegal. Gambling is illegal in most places.

How’s all that working out? Think none of that is happening, because someone in government said No? I think not. So, by all means, practice your religion. But know that when you try to legislate it into law, you have gone astray. If you think it gives you the right to refuse service or provide care to others, expect to be told you are wrong. Expect to pay a price, when justice prevails, for such arrogance and obstinance.

“I Have No Freedom of Speech. I am Attacked”

I have shocking news for some of us. The US Constitution has many amendments. As attached as some of us are to the Second Amendment, it surely is not the most important. They are all important, but its not hard to make the case that the First Amendment is at the top of the list. No democracy can thrive without these rights.

But even this right is not absolute. As an Army officer, I was politically mute for 30 years. I understood why a politically neutral military was essential. If you commit liable, you have exceeded your right to free speech, and can expect to pay a price. Such an offense is difficult to prove and convict, as it should be, but the limits are there.

Here is the point of today’s discussion. You have a right to speak out. It is very close to an absolute right – it’s about as close as we get. I worry that on some campuses this right is marginalized because others find what is said hurtful or stressful. That is nonsense, but so too is any perceived right to not be challenged on what you say.

You may say something others find outrageous, incendiary, factually wrong, or otherwise out of bounds. Know that they have the right to call you out on it, and to do so with the greatest vigor. Turns out, it’s a two-way street. Your right to speak does not provide you a shield from criticism. You speak BS, know that I will call you out on it. I expect you to do the same to/for me.

Is This Actually Important?

You bet it is. America today feels too much like Germany in 1929 for my comfort. There are those with power and resources seeking to reshape America in unamerican ways. One of the key assets of civilization is the ability to call out wrongdoing and abuse of power. Oh, yes – and the willingness of its citizens to do that calling out.

Show up. Show up now, every time and in very place Don’t do so and you surrender what is important. Allow hiding behind “freedom of religion” and “freedom of speech”, that allows a false moral high ground. Such malfeasance can set the national discussion if left unchallenged. To do so is to give up everything this country stands for in the most profound ways.

History is calling. Time to answer the call.


Bill Clontz, Founder, Agents of Reason       Bill Clontz

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5 replies to Being Clear about “Religious Freedom” and “Freedom of Speech”

  1. Seems to me the abortion issue is one of the most difficult fault lines in a belief system. It’s further complicated by the grey area in the middle folks are trying to legislate…when does a fetus become a person? At what point do legal rights apply to the unborn…if ever? I have been thinking about this issue for many years and still don’t have “rational” defensible answers to these questions. I favor a woman’s right to choose…but when does that right end?

    • I think you are correct, Jerry, and that is why I chose to cite it as an example. We all naturally seek a clear line, black and white resolution for such issues, and yet they rarely exist. The more I look at the Roe v Wade decision, the more impressed I am with its logic of different criteria based on trimesters. All we have learned in science since that decision tell us that they got it about as right as anyone could. Saying it is an absolute right up until birth or that it is no right at any stage does not seem right to me.

  2. “America today feels too much like Germany in 1929 for my comfort. “
    Chilling words to read, Bill. But, I’m sadly seeing them written in multiple places these days. While I’m not old enough to remember those times, I have read extensively about that era. And the intolerance and hatred that I’m seeing openly displayed for anyone that is “different” these days is frightening and reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

    I really enjoy your discussions and look forward to each one. However, I’m also at times feeling overwhelmed with all the ugliness I’m witnessing around me. I’ve just recently discovered Br. David Steindl-Rash, who was born in 1926 in Vienna and was a teenager during the Nazi-occupation of his country. I would love to talk with him about his thoughts on similarities during this time. He is 93yo and still very active in lecturing and writing. His work is now centered on being Grateful on a daily basis for everything that surrounds us. He has some interesting thoughts on “loving your enemies.”

    Thanks for your continued writing and sharing with us all.

    Rebecca Hammond

    • Thank you, Rebecca. Like you, I expect, I look forward to a time when we all have something else to talk about. In the meantime, here we are.

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