At the heart of many recent contentious debates from the Equality Act to COVID-19 church restrictions is the issue of religious freedom. But what exactly is religious freedom, and what makes it so uniquely important?

At its core, religion is the search for truth about questions of ultimate meaning. Common to most religions is an organized collection of beliefs, behaviors, and practices that connect or relate humanity with the divine. Religious freedom, then, is the freedom to believe what you want in terms of doctrine and theology and the freedom to order your life according to your deepest convictions about ultimate things.

In other words, religious freedom protects the ability of individuals to choose and change their religious beliefs and align their lives in agreement with those beliefs.

Religious freedom is not relativistic, nor does it profess there is no truth about God. Rather, it affirms the deep importance of truth and upholds the right of individuals to come to their own conclusions about what is true of God, humanity, and the world.

Attacks on religious freedom target one’s conscience—the very core of their being. This makes religious freedom a unique and essential right. Tom Farr says, “Our nature impels us to seek answers to profound questions about ultimate things. If we are not free to pursue those answers, and to live according to the truths we discover, we cannot live a fully human life.”

Thus, religious freedom is not merely the right to attend church and practice your religion within the walls of a church, synagogue, or mosque. Rather, it is the ability to live out your faith, including in the public square.

This broad conception of religious freedom is enshrined in the United States Constitution. The First Amendment protects this basic right, often called our “first freedom.” The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Beyond this key constitutional protection, religious freedom is also a fundamental human right, one recognized by international resolutions and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

Religious freedom is a widely recognized right around the globe. Yet, laws in many countries put qualifiers on the legal right to religious freedom, empowering governments to crack down when the beliefs of a community or an individual are perceived to oppose the government.

For Americans, these aggressive international violations remind us of the importance of protecting religious freedom at home. Yet, they also demonstrate the importance of promoting religious freedom in our foreign policy.

Societies that embrace religious freedom and pluralism tend to be more prosperous and secure. This makes sense. Societies that embrace individuals’ freedom to express their own viewpoints and live according to their beliefs are going to attract, rather than repel, talented people abroad as well as global economic engagement. Pluralistic societies that value human dignity and do not view religious groups or beliefs as a problem to be eliminated will not suffer from the violence that is fostered by religious discrimination.  

Religious freedom corresponds with and affirms other basic freedoms, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The right to openly express your most deeply held beliefs is essential to religious freedom, as is the right to peacefully assemble in houses of worship and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the concept of religious freedom is often misunderstood. This is seen with increasing frequency with activists who pit religious freedom against the demands of the moral revolution. For example, those whose beliefs about gender and sexuality are influenced by their faith are caricatured as intolerant and their beliefs are perceived as subversive. The resulting tension threatens to erode support for religious freedom as a freedom that benefits everyone—religious and non-religious.

Amid increasingly heated cultural debates, it is critical for those who value our first freedom to affirm its importance. Religious freedom will not endure by laws alone, although the law should include robust protections for religious freedom. Religious freedom also relies on cultural support.

By consistently living out our faith in the public square, we can foster a culture that respects religious freedom. So, pray in public, share your faith, and do not compromise your beliefs. Your constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion protects your ability to live according to your convictions. So, use it. Live according to your faith and defend the rights of others to do the same.