Freedom is one of the major values of people living in western democracies that have evolved for centuries. However, the very notion of freedom can be rather blurred, especially when it comes to certain aspects of human life. Religion has been a sensitive matter associated with diverse perspectives, conflicting views, or even clashes. Witte mentions several revolutions that “punctuated the gradual evolution of the Western legal tradition” (29). The shifts from Catholicism through Protestantism and other religions and beliefs to the modern legal paradigm. The United States is one of the illustrative examples of the way western society developed. People residing in the USA are free to practice any religion, which is hailed by many, although certain limitations exist (Muñoz 369). It may seem that the freedom to believe in something is a fundamental right of a free person, but almost any religion calls for certain actions that can potentially limit other people’s rights. Therefore, freedom of religion should have quite specific and sometimes strict restraints, which will ensure the sustainable development of the U.S. population characterized by diversity and heterogeneity.
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The Roots of the Western World
Prior to discussing the current state of affairs, it is necessary to have a closer look at the history of western society and its legal system. One of the milestones of the development of legal and religious norms existing in the present-day western world in the early years of Christianity expansion in the Roman Empire (Witte 30). The Roman Empire had a strong legal system that regulated all spheres of people’s social and even private life, including spirituality.
The legal theory also evolved, which resulted in the creation of sets of laws and regulations. Roman scholars, for instance, created the grounds for the rise of such notions as liberty and personal freedom (Witte 30). One of the peculiarities of this system was the divinization of the emperor as well as laws that acquired the status of divine guidance. At the same time, all the people across the empire were free to practice any religion as long as the emperor was worshiped. The Roman laws were the foundation of the legal system of the western world, and Christianity (that earned its place among the people who lived in different parts of the Roman Empire) soon became an integral part of this system.
Christianity, a monotheistic religion, initially developed outside the Roman legal system. One of the major reasons for that was the inconsistency of the requirement to worship the emperor as a divine creature (Witte 30). It had its own statutes, laws, and norms, but after the conversion of Constantine, a Roman Emperor, into Christianity, it was integrated into the imperial structure of legal concepts (Madeley 158). The Church became a distinct institution, but it was under the control of the Emperor, whose worship slightly transformed. Secular rulers gradually lost a part of their authority, and the Pope became the supreme authority for monarchs of the west. Further watersheds regarding religious beliefs were associated with the development of society.
The New World and Its Foundation
New beliefs and norms emerged and shaped the way religion affected people’s minds. The Church and monarchs fought for power; the clergy interpreted sacred texts differently and had dissimilar views on religious practice (Witte 32). People of different backgrounds developed diverse views regarding the primary sense of human existence and the role of the divine. The development of science and technology also played a considerable role in changing the attitude towards religious and secular laws and norms. The new nation that arose in the New World placed the major value on freedom (Schlesinger 190). Americans were free to share ideas and express opinions, which enabled them to create a society where all voices could be heard.
The United States is a country of diverse cultural groups that learned to collaborate and work on solutions to the issues they had to face. Importantly, people practicing different religions came to the new lands and were ready to tolerate the differences they had. The range of religions that interacted in various ways was considerable as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Daoism, as well as other religions have become an integral part of the cultural landscape of the country (Gedicks 134). The focus has always been on effective collaboration and achieving established goals.
It is noteworthy that contemporary American society is becoming more secularized. According to the recent statistical data, the group of “unchurched” people is equal to the number of “members of any single denomination” (Gedicks 136). An increasing number of Americans do not see religion as the most important part of human existence. These trends and attitudes have influenced the emergence of quite different perspectives on religion.
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Definitions and Laws
When discussing the freedom of religion and the way it is manifested in western society, scholars and theorists, as well as professionals involved in various spheres, focus on religious practice and expression. Balancing the freedom of religion and freedom of religious expression is one of the most important and difficult goals of the modern western world (Szabo 147). One of the major difficulties associated with the development of properly balanced regulations regarding the matter is the lack of an unambiguous and precise definition of the two terms and understanding of the notions. The clash of ideas often leads to conflicts in society.
As for religion and religious practice, the freedom to exercise religion has been a natural law to Americans for centuries. The founding fathers declared the American people’s right to worship the divine in any form with no limits established by the state or society (Muñoz 369). Clearly, the prevailing religion was Christianity, but people’s right to have other beliefs has always been respected. The construction of religious spaces is one of the illustrations of the plurality in the religious environment of the country. Catholic, Baptist, and Orthodox churches, as well as mosques and Hindu temples or any other spiritual spots, can be found across the USA. People are free to visit those places and practice their religion in their privacy settings. Prayers during a family dinner is a common tradition many Americans still value. Individual freedom and liberties are respected and protected by the U.S. Constitution, and Americans are proud of this fact.
However, religious expression is much more difficult to define as people have diverse views on the matter. For instance. Prayers, as a type of expression of religion, can be seen controversial under certain circumstances. As mentioned above, praying in private spaces is seen as absolutely acceptable, while praying in public places can lead to some groups’ opposition. Prayers in public schools can hardly seem appropriate due to the heterogeneity of the student population who may have different prayers, festivals, and ways to worship the divine (Muñoz 378). It is deemed that the state should be separated from any religion but has to provide equal opportunities to all groups.
It is also essential to make sure that the religious practice of an individual will not limit the rights of another person or group of people. This part of the issue is associated with the most controversial aspect of religion. It can be difficult to identify and offer truly equal rights, as well as ensure that no person’s right has been violated. The interpretation of laws, including the U.S. Constitution, and the perspectives concerning the extent of the impact of some phenomena, activities, beliefs on a person is a challenging process (Waldman). In the case of the development of public spaces, some see the erection of a memorial shaped like a large cross as the use of a Christian symbol and propagation of this religion. Others emphasize that the cross (with no crucifixion images or inscriptions) has lost its religious load and has become a secular object with multiple meanings that resonate with many religious beliefs and cultural domains. The plurality of visions leads to different attitudes towards the ways religions are expressed.
The cases related to prayers are quite numerous in modern American legal practice. It has been largely accepted that public schools should be free from the expression of any religion, so praying should be banned. Courts make decisions consistent with this approach, as in Santa Fe v. Doe when the court concluded that a public school could not have a student-led praying through the facility’s communication system (Cook). The court referred to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, stating that public schools could not provide equipment or any other opportunities for the manifestation of any religion. It was stressed that in such situations, students could feel obliged to engage in the practice that contradicts their religious beliefs (Cook). Apart from prayers, it is possible to consider numerous instances of potential violations of people’s rights that are based on their religious beliefs.
The use of symbols can also be problematic as different groups can see it as an infringement of their right. The erection of a big cross as a commemoration symbol to the dead is an illustration of the controversial side of the law (Waldman). The Supreme Court ruled that the “Peace Cross” in Maryland did not violate the First Amendment as it was not a religious symbol. The judge noted that a cross had been used in many contexts, and although it is historically associated with Christianity, it did not have any religious inscriptions. It was ruled that the cross was a secular object that could not endorse or infringe any religion. Other examples of religious issues may be associated with even more harm to people’s rights or even well-being.
One of the most hazardous manifestations of religious beliefs and the expression of religion is religious extremism. Tony Blair mentioned two facets or faces of faith and stressed that some religious paradigms were associated with sacrifice and caring for those in need, which could be seen as good religion (Hurd 24). However, certain religious beliefs are characterized by isolation and division into the friend-and-foe world, where the suppression of people practicing other religions is a virtue. Many people, including high-ranking politicians, see such religious concepts as negative and subject to restrictions and control (Hurd 24). Religious extremists have carried out numerous attacks that led to the death of thousands of people (Hurd 109). They believe that the representatives of other religions have to accept their religious practices or die. Clearly, such groups cannot be granted similar rights to practice and express their religious beliefs as this would mean the violation of other people’s basic rights.
What Can Limits Do?
In order to ensure the development of American society, freedom of religion must have certain limitations. People have diverse values and moral paradigms depending on the historical, political, economic, and cultural peculiarities of their countries. Such heterogeneous societies as the USA have to balance all those views and paradigms. The establishment of boundaries in the expression of religion is one of the ways to achieve this balance. The primary rule is to be free when practicing religion but never violate the right of any person (Szabo 147). It is necessary to consider some cases linked to the benefits and inherent components of limitations to religious expression.
One of the limitations is the ban of any practices that can harm other people in any way. It is unacceptable to grant the right to propagate and express religious beliefs that imply making others practice this religion (Hurd 33). Tolerance should be an intrinsic element of the religion that can have no limitations until it questions the basic values and norms of the society. Hurd refers to the words of Elena Fidddian-Qasmieh, who was involved in the development of a solution to the conflict in Algeria and stated that “a tyranny of tolerance” was instrumental in constructing a coherent society (Hurd 33). This kind of tyranny presupposes the “purposeful” displacement of practices that undermine the established order and centralizing other groups’ rituals and procedures (Hurd 33). It is critical to ensure the displacement of groups, practices, and customs that can be associated with harm to other people.
The primary benefit of this framework is its ability to regulate the relationships of people in the spiritual domain. The tyranny of tolerance was instrumental in solving the religion-based issues in Algeria, where different religious groups were in conflict (Hurd 33). In such an environment, every population and individual will be able to experience their spirituality and enjoy the advantages of living in the United States as a democratic and secular country.
Secularism and Traditions
The United States is often referred to as a boiling pot where cultures interact and overlap. Historically, the country’s prevailing religion, the one practiced by the majority of the population, is Christianity. Hence, it is but natural that the cultural landscape of the nation has many features associated with this religion. Festivities and celebrations related to Christian beliefs have become state holidays that are secular (Waldman). Many people claim that Saint Valentine’s Day has lost its meaning as a commemoration of the saint but has become a commercial celebration of relationships between men and women. Christmas is associated with a short winter vacation and the time spent with the family. The tradition of decorating Christmas trees and placing stockings in certain places has become a cultural artifact rather than a strict religious procedure. At the same time, these artifacts are symbols of American society and intrinsic elements of American culture.
Every country and any nation has certain traditions and peculiarities that are, to a different extent, related to some religions. The human civilization has developed throughout centuries, and this process involved the emergence and decline of some principles and ideological paradigms (Witte 30). New religions often construct over old ones, so beliefs and practices intermingle and overlap. Traditions based on this bulk of moral codes and specific procedures form countries’ cultures.
Safeguarding People’s Rights
As mentioned above, the tyranny of tolerance can help societies formed by several cultural groups develop. The regulation of the relationships between diverse cultural domains is an important function of the state characterized by diversity (Hurd 33). The vast majority of multinational countries have a dominant religious paradigm while promulgating religious tolerance, which has proved to be an effective system. The American society’s dominating religion is secularism now, although it is culturally rooted in Christianity. Therefore, some symbols (even being based on Christian traditions) have become secular, which has to be respected by Americans and especially newcomers.
The tyranny of tolerance for the United States can be manifested in the dominance of Christian-related traditions and respect for other religions. As mentioned above, the Roman Empire did not prevent its people (of diverse backgrounds) from worshiping their deities (practicing their religion) (Witte 30). Nevertheless, when the expression of religion was in conflict with the accepted norms, these practices were suppressed (limited). Likewise, the United States should ensure freedom of religion but has to introduce limitations when the established order is undermined. People’s freedom cannot turn into the dictatorship of an individual’s desires and perspectives. If someone feels uncomfortable in a country where Christian-rooted symbols are used on specific occasions (for example, state holidays), these people should either accept it or choose the place where they can feel content. This country has developed a set of values, norms, and laws that ensure economic, social, and political wellbeing. Dramatic changes in these codes can result in considerable shifts and can jeopardize the stability that has been achieved.
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On balance, it is possible to note that limits to freedom of religion are beneficial for any society as they prevent people from impairing the existing systems. Individuals have unique visions and attitudes that are often shaped by their cultural background—ensuring people’s compliance with specific rules safeguards democratic values. As long as some beliefs are able to co-exist with other convictions, they can develop freely within the boundaries identified by a certain group. The United States has evolved into a secular society where people practicing different religions interact and collaborate. This collaboration can be effective when people focus on something that unites them rather than something that is in conflict with their perspectives. Therefore, Americans have a culture with its own symbols and traditions that is flexible enough to find similar aspects with other traditions and beliefs. Americans should cherish their national construct and show others that all cultures are based on some basic concepts and notions. Limits and boundaries can help in setting a favorable environment for sharing ideas in a respectful manner.
Cook, Bob. “US Supreme Court Is Hinting Public School Coaches Won’t Have to Leave Religion on the Sidelines.” Forbes. 2019, Web.
Gedicks, Frederick Mark. “Religious Freedom as Equality.” Routledge Handbook of Law and Religion, edited by Silvio Ferrari, Routledge, 2015, pp. 133-145.
Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Madeley, John. “Religion and the State.” Routledge Handbook of Religion and Politics, edited by Jeffrey Haynes, Routledge, 2016, pp. 156-172.
Muñoz, Vincent Phillip. “Two Concepts of Religious Liberty: The Natural Rights and Moral Autonomy Approaches to the Free Exercise of Religion.” American Political Science Review, vol. 110, no. 2, 2016, pp. 369-381.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Vital Center: Politics of Freedom. Routledge, 2017.
Szabo, Kende. “Pitting Freedom of Expression Against Freedom of Religion: The Paradoxical Effect of Blasphemy Laws and Why One Should Be Favored over Another.” Manchester Review of Law, Crime, and Ethics, vol. 7, 2018, pp. 147-155.
Waldman, Steven. “The Supreme Court’s ‘Peace Cross’ Case Demonstrates the Fine Art of Pretending Religious Symbols.” The Washington Post, 2019, Web.
Witte, John, Jr. “Law and Religion in the Western Legal Tradition.” Routledge Handbook of Law and Religion, edited by Silvio Ferrari, Routledge, 2015, pp. 29-43.