Religion as a Private Matter

During the past 50 years the public face of religion has morphed into a private affair. Electronically interconnected opinions easily reduce the idea of religious faith to a positive and negative feedback system. This reduced form says people reward themselves when they can convince themselves that doing good makes a self-fabricated deity happy, while doing bad makes that same deity punish them. The popular idea is that religion is a system of rewards and consequences. It is an idea that works for some people and does not work for others. But whichever side of that idea you may fall on, it should—according to advertised, rapidly accepted opinion—remain a silent, personal choice. Truth has been reduced to a private matter. With the changing view of the existence of objective truth of religion, the courage of faith and reverence to heroes of the faith has shrunk as well.

We live in a world in which we are encouraged to “tolerate” everyone, instead of lovingly discussing subjects of disagreement or confusion while pursuing truth together. Somewhere along the way the definition of religious freedom got muddled in the waters of religious privacy. Religious freedom was originally the freedom of an individual or community, “in public or private, to manifest . . . religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” It also includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs.1 Today, sharing our personal beliefs in public is commonly frowned upon.

From Bravery to Selfish Interest

This frown upon acts that were once thought of as courageous can be observed as we look at the media’s response to the late 26-year-old missionary, John Allen Chau, who was killed while proselytizing to the Sentinelese tribe. His death sparked much feedback from the opinionated and active media. Sharing Christ with an isolated people group was once thought of as brave and selfless, but now is being portrayed as a promotion of self-interest. Chau left all forms of safety to attempt to share the gospel with one of the most isolated people groups left in the world. His undertaking involved hiring a fishing boat to illegally carry him to the remote North Sentinel Island to make contact with an unreached people group. He was shot by bow and arrow upon arrival. His outreach attempt is now being scrutinized by the watching world. The Washington Post stated Chau’s story has “sparked international outrage, [and] a heated debate about the protection of tribal communities.”2 A response of outrage has newly sprouted with this generation.

As we look to earlier generations’ responses, the contrast is alarming. When a similar tribal killing happened to Jim Elliot, a missionary to Ecuador in 1956, Life magazine wrote a 10-page article on the missionary’s story of bravery. Elliot’s wife later moved to the area where her husband was killed to carry on his legacy and evangelize the Huaorani people. She authored several books describing her experience and her husband’s life, which were later described by New York Times as “the definitive inspirational mission stories for the second half of the twentieth century.”3 The two martyred missionaries, Chau and Elliot, seemed to have almost parallel lives, but the generational paradigm on religion as necessarily private has shifted in the 50 years that separate these two individuals.

Removing Religion From the Public Square

Across the country, people understand religious privacy differently. Some public schools understand the First Amendment’s call to prevent the government from establishing the peoples’ religion for them as banning some expressions of religion in schools. In Cresco, Pennsylvania, a lawsuit was filed by parents against the school district because the school prohibited a fifth grader from giving out invitations to a church Christmas party. In Capistrano, California, a teacher was accused of belittling a student’s religion by calling creationism “religious, superstitious nonsense.”4 The cases, both of which occurred in the past 10 years, appear to originate from the misdirected understanding of the practice of religious freedom and the changing climate of our nation’s perspective toward faith.

Just as the government should not be allowed to establish someone’s religion for them, the government should also not be allowed to establish the “religion” of secularism for all or promote a total exclusion of religion. By dictating an exclusion principle, we are adopting the belief that the pursuit of religious truth is antiquated and a matter of opinion or upbringing. This belief has influenced the way society approaches subjects of religious privacy. The balance between separating church and government versus removing religion completely seems to be on a scale that is constantly being tipped to polarization.

During the past decade the Supreme Court has been reconsidering the appropriateness of having religious monuments or symbols in public places. The Mojave National Preserve in southern California displays a white cross memorial on top of Sunrise Rock commemorating those who lost their lives in World War 1. In 2010 the ruling of the case Salazar v. Buono stated that “the goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.”5 A month after the ruling the cross was cut down and illegally taken from Sunrise Rock. Though the burglary was an act of vandalism, the cross was not replaced until a year later, when the Mojave National Preserve decided to remove Sunrise Rock from its land, making the subject of the appropriateness of the cross unimportant, as it was no longer a federal matter.

In addition to scenarios like Sunrise Rock’s cross, the familiar dilemma of posting the Ten Commandments in public squares has faced criticism from secularists. Some argue that the public display of the Ten Commandments prioritizes and endorses Judeo-Christian beliefs while ignoring nontheistic religions. Their argument stands on the grounds that every religion should be represented in equal proportion each time one is mentioned; the same thought that mandates stores to wish customers “Happy Holidays” as opposed to acknowledging Christmas as the national holiday on each of our December calendars. The thought of removing the Ten Commandments from public places ignores the historical significance of keeping symbolism of faith in the country’s public story.

Understanding Religion in America’s History

Christianity is a resounding note in accurately composing our nation’s history for upcoming generations. The removal of religious symbolism in public places, and the silencing of religion outside the private home, will do nothing more than catalyze the modern mind’s misunderstanding of our nation’s historical foundations.

Though the nation’s forebears were careful to protect their new country from the forced beliefs of their Anglican motherland’s politics, America was designed under a Protestant society’s moral compass. Episcopalians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and other denominations came together while disagreeing in sectarian debates regarding such subjects as infant baptisms, spiritual gifts, and church involvement in politics, but they did not disagree with the Protestant moral law. The founders were meticulous at safeguarding the nation against a denominational religion, but it’s difficult to ignore the volume of historical evidence supporting the nation’s societal religion as Christianity. All over Washington, D.C., we can see God inscribed and woven throughout our oldest artifacts, from the Lincoln Memorial quoting Scripture to the Declaration of Independence acknowledging God.

The recurring theistic message present in our historical documents and monuments appears to be deliberate in placement. The mandate for Congress not to establish a religion was in large part placed so that the government could not tamper with the church’s business and so one denomination would not dictate to the country as it had in England. But the fabric of the United States Constitution was not stitched with an intent to remove Christian assumptions from our society.

Without understanding Protestantism’s role in forming America’s laws, we are susceptible to misunderstanding the moral laws that gave us our blueprints and made us unique in liberty and justice. When trying to quantify America’s unique beauty, Dwight D. Eisenhower quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “I sought the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”6 Today the unique greatness of America might be quantified much differently by political leaders.

The Effects of a Diminished Memory of Faith

One of the loudest political changes that has occurred in the past 40 years is the decline of the church’s volume in America’s voice. Christianity is no longer a common denominator among Americans. Christians are protecting their right of religious freedom more often because the mainstream code has changed. Religion is thought of as private; something that should not affect public life.

The current state of the nation was not unimagined by our founders. They spoke of the dangers of removing Christian morals from the country. They worked hard to help us remember our founding identity. In 1796 George Washington warned, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”7 Religion is more than a pretty idea that helps some behave morally. It is a subject of relevant importance when deciding what justice means to a nation.

We cannot reverse the government’s growth toward secularism, but we can speak on behalf of religious freedom and what religious privacy means by knowing the historical origins of these topics and by understanding our right to religion in the public and private sector. In the article “Getting Religion Right in Public Schools” the author states, “Although public school officials must be neutral in their treatment of religion—neither inculcating nor denigrating religion—neutrality under the First Amendment does not mean ignoring religion.”8 In addition to that, being fair toward people of all faiths does not mean discrediting religion as a subject of private importance nor simply tolerating it or allowing it to coexist without humble and honest discussions.

It is on the back of honest discussions, that America became a uniquely beautiful nation. The Puritans fled the Church of England, not to remove religion from public life, but to be free to discuss alternatives. It’s important to remember America’s story when defending religious freedom. Faith is more than a private matter for it possesses the strength to build nations.

1 Mike Pompeo, “International Religious Freedom Report for 2011” (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, United States Department of State, 2012), p. 1, www.state.gov/documents/organization/192653.pdf.

2 Annie Gowen, “ ‘He Lost His Mind’: Slain Missionary John Allen Chau Planned for Years to Convert Remote Tribe”, Washington Post, Nov. 27, 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/national/he-lost-his-mind-slain-missionary-john-allen-chau-planned-for-years-to-convert-remote-tribe/2018/11/27/eb13d7ad-4685-4748-951b-790d671f655d_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5fd4fb336ab5.

3 Sam Roberts, “Elisabeth Elliot, Tenacious Missionary in Face of Tragedy, Dies at 88,” New York Times, Dec. 21, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2015/06/18/us/elisabeth-elliot-tenacious-missionary-to-ecuador-dies-at-88.html.

4 Charles C. Haynes, “Getting Religion Right in Public Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan 93, no. 4 (December 2011): 8-14, EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=69600694&site=ehost-live.

5 Anthony Kennedy, in Ariane de Vogue, “Supreme Court Keeps Mojave Cross Case Alive,” ABC News, Apr. 28, 2010.

6 “Eisenhower’s Address at Republican Party Dinner Held at the Boston Garden,” New York Times, Sept. 22, 1953, p. 2.

7 “George Washington on the Importance of Religion to Political Prosperity in His Farewell Speech” (Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University), p. 1, berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/quotes/george-washington-on-the-importance-of-religion-to-political-prosperity-in-his-farewell-speech.


Article Author: ​Joy Dordal

Joy Dordal writes from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a registered nurse who has worked as a medical volunteer and missionary to South and Central America. During her time in the developing world, she began her side career as a freelance writer and blogger.