'Freedom of' or 'Freedom from'?

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, October 1, 2012

'Freedom of' or 'Freedom from'?

In 1984 the late Richard John Neuhaus came out with a book titled The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. The thesis was simple, but profound: a public square is naked if it excludes religion and religiously grounded values from the public forum. 

The idea is that we are a secular society.

Yet Neuhaus argued that no square remains naked. If you exclude one set of values, you will simply embrace another. 

Nearly ten years later, Stephen L. Carter published a book titled The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivializes Religious Devotion.

If Neuhaus warned against emptying the public square of religion, Carter detailed how active the agenda was to do just that. It wasn’t simply the absence of religion from public conversation, but the active removal of it. His book revealed the epitome of privatization: religion is fine to be privately engaging, but it must be socially irrelevant.

Now let’s come into our own day.

The idea of the public square being naked is assumed.

The idea that religion should influence public policy is uniformly denounced. The trivialization of religion is complete.

What is now upon us is the sense that our constitution does not simply call for the freedom of religion, but the freedom from it. In other words, that we must sanitize any and all aspects of religion from public life.

This is a new and profound break with the understanding of religious freedom throughout history. While I would argue strongly in support of the separation of church and state, the dynamic behind that idea was to ensure that religion was never imposed upon by government. Indeed, many of our first settlers came to America fleeing religious persecution. 

Instead, the idea of the separation of church and state was meant to keep the state out of the church -- never the church out of the state. Meaning, it was never intended to create a naked public square devoid of any and all religious sensibilities or values. A naked public square would have been unthinkable even to the most dedicated of deists (e.g., Thomas Jefferson).

But that is precisely what the new agenda seems to be. The courts have become filled with petitions and suits seeking to take down any public expression of religious sentiment, and in particular, those related to Christianity. Manger scenes at Christmas, crosses in cemeteries, 10 Commandments in courthouses, prayers at commencements – there is an aggressive move to rid society of their presence.

Early on, the idea was for the government not to promote one faith over another. But that was disingenuous at best, as you simply cannot rid a culture of religion without losing how religion shaped that culture. It would be akin to trying to teach history with a mandate to avoid any and all religious events. 

You can’t.

Too much of history is religious history.

So to attempt to force any and all religious practice from the public realm, simply because it is public, is not removing government from an advocacy role. It is making government an advocate in the removal of religious expression.

Case in point: A Wisconsin-based atheist group successfully pressured the Pueblo City Council to drop its opening prayers at public meetings, arguing it is unconstitutional to “coerce” people at a government meeting to participate in what is “typically” a Christian prayer.

But as a columnist in nearby Colorado Springs wrote in the Colorado Springs Gazette, “this confused organization believes we have government-protected freedom from religion in addition to our freedom to pick and choose religious beliefs or to ignore and avoid them all.”

“While we have a right to shun religion,” columnist Wayne Laugesen continued, “we do not have a right to government protection from the sights and sounds of religion in public – even on government property.”

The point is a critical one. Standing for the separation of church and state, standing for religious liberty and free speech, does not mean airbrushing all religious rhetoric and symbol from the public square.

It is not “freedom from” that our constitution is mandated to provide, but “freedom of.”

If we allow select groups to make it “freedom from,” then we have effectively outlawed religion from the public square. Which would make it no longer naked (Neuhaus), or trivialized (Carter),

... but illegal.

James Emery White



Neuhaus, Richard John. The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Eerdmans, 1984).

Carter, Stephen L. The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (HarperCollins, 1993).

“Colorado city urged to stand firm against anti-prayer campaign,” Fox News/Associated Press, September 28, 2012; read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

'Freedom of' or 'Freedom from'?