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Religious disagreements have often been the cause of discord, violence, and hatred in many parts of the world. In the U.S. during the colonial times, religious differences were the cause of religious conflicts and persecutions before the founders of the US undertook to work together to protect religious freedom and end persecutions and religious intolerance (Gunn 189).
The new religious pluralism, in the American context, guarantees religious tolerance and religious freedom, which has transformed the religious landscape to allow the coexistence of many religious standpoints. Unlike in the past, the religious pluralism allows the interaction of multiple religious traditions within the state and the civil society.
However, despite this remarkable success, currently, religious confrontations often arise over many issues of religious faith. In particular, issues of creationism and evolution raise religious disputes, which are increasingly growing more intense. At the same time, the U.S. promotes religious liberty and pluralism as one of the cornerstones of democracy in the rest of the world.
However, in the US, politics, law, and religion often generate disagreements and divergent religious views whereby, divisive politics on a number of religious issues threatens the commitment to religious freedom.
Religious Freedom in America
Despite some episodes of religious intolerance in the past, the US has made considerable progress in promoting religious freedom. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights purposely aimed at protecting individual right of worship and religious freedom.
In particular, the framers of the constitution included three distinct commitments to religious liberty viz. the religious oaths to public office, prohibitions to freedom of worship, and legislations against the establishment of religious facilities were declared against the constitution (Gunn 197).
From the colonial era dominated by Protestant pluralism, the US presently allows the expression of almost all world religious faiths. This step presents a significant stride in promoting religious pluralism and encouraging religious tolerance.
In the US, many people do not profess any religious faith and they include the secularists, humanists, and atheists. Since the constitution offers no religious preference or any state religion, in the American context, religious freedom implies the religious liberty for all citizens including the non-believers.
Religious liberty encompasses three principles: firstly, religious liberty is an individual right that transcends the state power (Gunn 201). Secondly, religious liberty, according to the constitution, confers freedom of conscience to people of all faiths. Lastly, religious liberty means the right to practice a given religious faith or no religion at all without government interference. Thus, in the US, religious freedom allows all individuals to profess any religious beliefs or no religion without any state control.
The Religious Landscape in America
The freedom of religion as embedded in the constitution did not aim at preventing religious beliefs or institutions from participating in public life. In effect, the disestablishment resulted to less or no state interference in religion. Additionally, the freedom of religion provisions in the constitution barred any religion from becoming a state religion. As a result, many religious faiths play a vital role in shaping public policy and public life.
The need to separate religion from the state was meant to prevent the government from being biased in the denominational competitions. Additionally, the religious freedom has significantly shaped the religious landscape in the US. Religious tolerance among the Catholic, Jewish, the dominant Protestant, and other religions coupled with low cases of religious violence or turmoil are the results of the freedom of religion.
In recent times, the denominational rivalries have declined giving rise to religious interest groups that go beyond religious boundaries. Religious views tend to reflect perspectives within and across denominations (Castelli 324).
Commonly, religious opinions to controversial issues involve the religious versus the secular, or the conservative versus the liberal, which reflects a considerable change in religious boundaries and alliances (Castelli 327). Currently, unlike in the past, most disputes in the US involve competition amongst various religious interest groups but not conflicts.
Threats to Freedom of Religion
Considerable progress has been made in many religious settings following the articulation of the freedom of religion in the constitution. Americans are more tolerant to religious views and appear to transcend religious prejudices.
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However, angry confrontations over issues touching on religious faiths threaten the religious liberty that is so celebrated in the US. In particular, issues about public financing of religious projects such as schools, the Ten Commandment monuments, taxation as well as the use of the name of God when swearing allegiance to public office threaten this religious freedom (Sullivan 80).
Religious disputes are also apparent in the public education system over teaching of controversial topics such as evolution and creationism. Religious divisions on other controversial issues including euthanasia, gay rights, abortion, and stem-cell research are apparent in the US.
At the same time, the U.S. promotes religious freedom as a “universal human right” internationally. Through the International Religious Freedom Act (IRF) of 1998, the U.S. offers multilateral assistance to countries to promote religious freedom as one of the cornerstones of democratic development (Sullivan 81). It also sets out various initiatives to prevent violations of religious freedom by countries and promote religious tolerance.
Religious freedom is a right conferred upon Americans by the constitution and the Bill of Rights. Though much success has been achieved including religious tolerance and coexistence, religious disagreements often arise on a number of controversial issues. Internationally, the U.S, through the IRF Act, promotes religious freedom as a way of enhancing democracy. However, locally, the interaction between politics and the state as well as religious disagreements on many issues threaten the religious freedom.
Castelli, Allen. “Praying for the Persecuted Church: US Christian Activism in the Global Arena.” Journal of Human Rights 4.3 (2005): 321-331.
Gunn, Jeremy. “The Complexity of Religion and the Definition of ―Religion in International Law.” Harvard Human Rights Journal 16.4 (2003): 189-205.
Sullivan, Winifred. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.