Your freedom, my restriction: Rethinking religious freedom at home and abroad

Author: Julia French

Julia French

One of the first things that shocked me when we arrived in Oman on Sunday was that we weren’t expected to attend Mass. Unlike the weekend in the West that’s structured around the Christian holy day, the weekend for most Gulf countries is from Friday to Saturday to allow the Muslim majority in those states to celebrate their holy day on Friday. And yet, I had never even recognized the significance of this religious structure before. It is a given in the United States that Christians would be free on Sunday to go to religious services because Christianity is the majority (and preferred) religion. In Gulf states, however, this isn’t the case, and as our discussions came together throughout the week, I continued to learn about the extent of these biases, particularly those involving religious freedom.

To me, the terms “religious freedom” and “religious tolerance” in the United States have always meant that everyone can practice whatever religion they choose. For instance, according to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance” (Article 18). Similarly, the Religious Freedom Institute states that “religious freedom is therefore the right of all persons to believe, speak, and act—individually and in community with others, in private and in public—in accord with their understanding of ultimate truth (“What in the World Is Religious Freedom?”). 

Over time, these broad definitions began to take on new qualifications as I came to understand the complexity of the situation. For instance, you are free to practice any religion as long as it doesn’t harm others or infringe upon their rights (but harms and benefits from whose perspective?).

Such complications only build upon each other when our notion of religious freedom inevitably interacts with our social context. Take for example the recent case of the Christian baker refusing to serve at a same-sex wedding: where do the baker’s rights end and the couple’s begin? Does religious freedom permit acts of discrimination?

After similar events in recent years, I’ve slowly been redefining my understanding of religious freedom. It wasn’t until some of our conversations about religion in Oman, though, that I recognized how some of the Sultanate’s biases in overseeing religious affairs in Oman were similarly present in our own ideas about religious freedom in the United States.

Our initial encounter with how religious differences explicitly affect daily life—Sunday vs. Friday—in the Middle East only expanded as we continued to explore the dynamics of interreligious dialogue in Oman. We visited one of the country’s four non-Muslim religious compounds, where different Christian churches and Hindu temples are allowed to hold public services. There, we began to ask the more challenging questions about what such religious tolerance by the state indirectly means.

Even though Christians and Hindus can worship freely in this shared compound, this designation necessarily, even if indirectly, excludes other groups. Minority religions—such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—were not considered to be Christian by the compound’s self-governing Christian authorities and as a result, were left without space or freedom to practice their religious beliefs in the space provided by the state. Fortunately, the gracious hosts of our trip at the Al Amana Centre were able to accommodate the Latter-day Saints in their chapel across town, so the group was not completely barred from worship.

But this experience shows how, despite the label of “religious freedom and tolerance,” this is not necessarily the reality for all religious groups in Oman without navigating layers of authority and regulation. Oman is not unique in this regard, however. A similar situation of bias and exclusion is present in the United States, even if to a lesser degree.

The United States is perhaps one of the most religiously tolerant countries in the world, but certain biases and assumptions still influence how we understand and practice this celebrated label. Structuring the weekend around Saturday-Sunday and “Winter Holiday” around Christmas are important examples, but not the only ones. Founding documents and courtroom proceedings assume Christian terms and concepts almost by default. We could also look at our leaders and ask, could a devout Muslim or Hindu expect to mount a successful run for the highest office in the land?

My point is that while the United States is a tolerant country, we are not without our biases. Whether we realize it or not, our politics, daily life, and attitudes are influenced by the United States’ preferential treatment of Christianity.

Our conversations have challenged me to rethink how many assumptions I carry about my own country, and to recognize what I take for granted.

So then what is religious freedom? Our time in Oman did not answer this question for me. Rather, our discussions with Omani Christians and Muslims as well as our Bangladeshi peers demonstrated how complex this concept truly is. Neither Oman nor the United States is perfect when it comes to their treatment of different religions. And yet, Oman turned a mirror to the United States to reveal what can be easily overlooked when you are otherwise in the middle of it.

Once I was displaced from my familiar American surroundings at the University of Notre Dame where Christianity is built into the very bricks of the school, I wrestled with these notions of religious freedom and tolerance throughout our time in Oman. And yet, even though this trip was only a temporary change of scenery, our conversations—along with those that have continued upon our return home—have challenged me to rethink how many assumptions I carry about my own country, and to recognize what I take for granted in being part of the preferred religion of the United States.