What Freedom of Religion Really Means - Copyright 2009, John Manimas

I believe The Primary of Stewardship has the potential to correct a dangerous misunderstanding on the part of some Americans as to what is meant by the “secular society” or “secular humanist society” and what is meant by the historical assessment “We are a Christian nation.” This misunderstanding arises, I believe, from sleeping in social studies class and not getting the important points in social and political science that explain why we have separation of church and state and what that really means. This institutionalized separation is in principle an accounting arrangement, and combined with the principle that government should remain neutral toward religion, these two principles together contribute greatly toward the value that Americans call “freedom of religion.”

The other principle that defines freedom of religion is the principle clearly taught by Jesus that we are evaluated according to our conduct. In truth, we are a Christian nation because we put into our social values and into our law the freedom of religion that is possibly the most important scientifically practical concept that Jesus taught: People are judged, or evaluated, according to their conduct and not according to their membership or memberships. This means that no one’s worth before God or status before the civil law is based on what religious group or ethnic group they belong to, or any club’s or institutions or organizations they belong to. Everyone is judged or evaluated by the same standard, their conduct or behavior toward their neighbors (remember the Golden Rule) and keep in mind the wonderfully clear Muslim version of the Golden Rule: “I wish for my neighbors the same good things that I wish for myself.” There are many passages and parables in the Gospels that affirm the concept of judgment according to conduct, but the most familiar and most obvious is the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan was a traditional enemy to the Jews. Therefore, when Jesus told the parable where the Samaritan stopped to help an injured traveler, one who had been beaten by thieves and was at risk to die if left by the roadside without water, Jesus was telling a story where a “bad person” did a good thing. A publican (or any generic Roman citizen) and then a Jewish clergyman, passed by because they did not want to “get involved.” The Samaritan took the injured man into his care and brought him to an inn where he could recover rather than die alone in the desert. Jesus could have said “Even though this Samaritan did something good, he is still damned to hell because he has the wrong religion and does not have a relationship with the one true God.” If Jesus said that, some in his audience might have applauded and affirmed his resolution to the story, but we would be appalled, because we have processed the teaching of Jesus for many centuries and we know that Jesus would never assert that anyone is saved and receives the grace of God because of the club, or race, or ethnic group or religious organization they belong to.

We are judged according to our conduct, Jesus teaches emphatically, and what this means, emphatically, is that no one is saved or sanctified or forgiven or blessed because of a membership, only according to actual conduct. Why do so many people in the world fall into the error of believing that membership in a particular organization or religious institution functions as a kind of ticket or reservation in heaven? I suspect the problem of judgment by membership arises because the word “conduct” triggers a human obsession with punishments and rewards. Once the mind gets focused on punishments and rewards, people make the quick transition to dwelling on the idea that if you are good and pray and go to church you will go to heaven, which is the ultimate reward, and if you are bad and do not conform and show your compliance with social customs by going to church, you will be punished for those offenses and any other offenses. Those who are obsessive about the concept of God implementing punishments for sinners or offenders then become “preachers” on how badly and grotesquely people will be punished for sexual offenses, since sexual offenses are the offenses that are often most fascinating to “preachers.” With sexual offenses, insofar as they are studied by psychologists and sociologists and biologists, it is reasonable to conclude that sexual offenses are the offenses that both preachers and those who listen to preachers would like to commit. Repressing sexual desires causes such desires to become more of a problem than when sexual impulses are openly acknowledged and coped with in a manner that is consistent with good stewardship. But, when repressed and then being transformed into an obsession or fear or psychological “complex,” the preacher and those preached to become the purveyors of a religion based upon fear and shame and the great importance of punishments. That emotionally-charged religion then becomes a religion based on anger, resentment, hypocrisy, fear, hatred and violence, all the results of missing the correct point that being judged according to conduct teaches us that all religious institutions are equal, rather than the erroneous idea that God loses sleep thinking up punishments for bad people.

The correction of the obsession with punishment, and accepting the teaching and example of Jesus about being evaluated according to conduct and not according to memberships, is the essence of freedom of religion in the United States of America. When one gets this concept, it then follows logically and clearly to say “Yes, we are a Christian nation, and because we are a Christian nation we practice the democratic teaching of Jesus. Everyone is judged or evaluated and accepted as a citizen and member of society based on their conduct and not on any social or political requirement that they take membership in a particular church or any other organization. In the real America, you can be a loner or an independent thinker, or an atheist or a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, any religion or no religion, and still be respected and protected as one possessing the sacred rights and privileges of a citizen, and all the rights and benefits thereof as a neighbor and human being. Freedom of Religion means your religion gets you little or nothing but at least ordinary courtesy. Your actual conduct on the street and in the marketplace and at home is what determines who you are and the value of your contribution to society and whatever reward may result from being good instead of being bad.

The reason we have freedom of religion is because we have built into our legal and political institutions this very important concept taught by Jesus, that it is not reliable or just to evaluate anyone according to their memberships, but only according to their actual conduct. This is what freedom of religion really means. Religions, like citizens, do not get privileges. One law for all, one freedom for all. What you do is who you are.

Link to: (Welcome) or (JMDM 2009)