Religious Freedom As I See It
By the Rev. Dr. Perry Hopper
In her essay, American Religious Freedom: Pride and Prejudice, Tisa Wenger argues that “many Americans take great pride in religious freedom as a pivotal feature of the nation’s founding experiment, and a signal contribution to global practices of democracy. However, any amount of historical investigation reveals that this freedom has always had its limits, and Americans have always disagreed about its implications in practice.” This is no less true when it comes to the experience and application of religious freedom among African Americans. I recall the 2015 Religious Liberty Council Luncheon in Dallas, Texas, where the luncheon speaker, the Rev. Dr. Marvin McMickle remarked that “…there is (was) a reason this audience is as white (non-diverse) as it is.”
In its earliest origins, the concept of religious freedom has met with dual interpretation. On the one hand, it has been the basis for free expression and liberty of choice among slaves when deciding where and how to worship; and on the other hand used as an apologetic for the holding of one’s beliefs — specifying that this same freedom was not to infringe on the authority of the slaveholders. This helps to explain why, in large part, African Americans have had to rearticulate the idea of religious freedom in support of our broader struggles for freedom.
I have always understood religious freedom to be a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. That means we in America are not only free to worship, but we are free to express our beliefs in the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of liberation.
Growing up in the Great Northwest city of Seattle, we were, it seemed, as far away from the ‘action’ of all of the Civil Rights movements we read and heard about taking place in the country during my youth. I grew up during the growth pangs of desegregation, court-ordered school busing, and inequity in housing. I entered college during the time of the Allan Bakke case, when “reverse discrimination” was the campus watch word. But I was also blessed to be connected to a faith community called Mount Zion Baptist Church of Seattle, which helped to anchor me during times of tension, discrimination and national unrest. Our church was led by a visionary and Civil Rights icon, the Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, who understood the connection between one’s religious faith and practice. Rev. McKinney was a graduate of Morehouse College (as was his father) and came from a strong church and Civil Rights tradition; having grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Antioch Baptist Church. He brought to his ministry a focus on the cultural awareness, liberation and economic development of the African American communities where he served. I was blessed to have him not only as my pastor but as my spiritual mentor in the early years of my ministry.
There were two ways that religious freedom manifested itself in my personal faith journey. First, in my understanding of how faith connected to my own freedom as an African American, and second, in how religious freedom was essential for me in having a fuller, more expansive understanding of God’s presence not only in my life, but in the broader expressions of Christian faith and religious beliefs.
Before I learned anything about formal definitions of religious liberty, I was exposed to many of the political and social issues in my community and in the nation through my home church. It was not unusual for leading civic and religious leaders to show up and preach from the Mount Zion pulpit on any given Sunday. Their sermons would be laced with perspectives on societal racism and discrimination, the need for fair housing and jobs, community policing and opportunities for women in the workplace as well as political engagement. I credit a great deal of this to the senior pastor in partnership with the vision of church leaders who always saw Mount Zion as having a role in the community. The church had its own elementary school, a cultural center and credit union. I learned early on that religion was not simply spiritual expression but also an integration of civic engagement with the issues of the time; addressing the whole of humanity. When I responded to the call to ministry, I knew that my ministry would include some level of involvement in helping to lead my community. This, to me, is religious freedom at its best; where faith and religious expression are “operationalized” and actualized in everyday life and events.
It was not a stretch that I became involved in progressive congregations (Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York; Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, New York; and Community Baptist Church of Englewood, New Jersey) throughout my ministry journey. I was intentional in my choice to be involved in churches that sought to make an impact on the local community, the nation and the world. Moreover, as we celebrate Black History Month, I highlight here that each of these churches have made their historic mark on the road to freedom for African Americans.
Second, I have been blessed in my faith journey that my understanding of religious freedom is not narrowly defined to the Christian faith tradition. I recall Dr. McKinney using an illustration that religion was like a collection of shirts on a clothesline, while faith is choosing one of those shirts to put on and wear. That still lives with me in that we can honor and recognize the religious expressions of God in other faith traditions while at the same time fully embracing our own. For me, Jesus Christ is the highest and finest revelation of God known to humanity. At the same time, I celebrate the religious expressions of others as they seek God for themselves and choose to live out the principles of their faith in service to others.
I have always been ecumenical; another definition of religious liberty. Truthfully, the African American religious tradition and history has always been ecumenical. From Marcus Garvey to C. H. Mason; from Elijah Muhammed to J. H. Jackson, from Malcolm X to Gardner C. Taylor and Vashti McKenzie, our religious tradition is rich with the message of freedom, liberation, diversity and purpose, and I embrace it all.
As we celebrate African American History Month, religious freedom is not a simple concept or vague principle limited to 17th century ideals. For me, religious liberty intersects with the continuous struggle of African Americans to experience today the fulfillment of the long-sought vision contained in the U.S. Constitution along with the racial and economic justice we demand from society.
In one of my first assignments as a seminarian in 1981, I was challenged to write an interpretation paper on the statement: “Religion is the soul of culture and culture is the soul of religion.” The paper was the perfect invitation for me to explain my view of how in African American culture there is often no separation between cultural and religious expressions. We have taken the concept of religious freedom and made it our own through our civil and political application.