Written by: Emma Rodriguez
The North American Division (NAD) Public Affairs and Religious Liberty ministry hosted a conference titled “Reconstructing Religious Liberty in a Time of Religious and Secular Extremes” last weekend. The event, held at the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists in partnership with Southern Adventist University, explored new ways to talk about religious freedom within a culturally and politically polarized America.
The conference featured a diverse lineup of speakers, including academics, theologians and religious freedom experts. Among the speakers were David French, a New York Times columnist; Leslie Pollard, president of Oakwood University; Samuel Perry, author of “The Flag and the Cross”; Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities; Pastor Ivor Myers, lead pastor of Living Manna Online Church; and Tobias Cremer, junior research fellow at the University of Oxford.
In the introduction given by Orlan Johnson, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, he mentioned exploring new ways to talk about religious freedom. When talking about the separation of church and state, he said the church should aim for an approach that is “neutral enough so that every religion can serve God in the way they see fit.”
“We want this conference to provide a historic overview,” Johnson said. “We want young people to join the conversation and understand the importance of religious freedom.”
In his keynote address, French spoke about the paradox of religious liberty in the United States. He argued that while Americans have more religious freedom than at any other time in history, they often feel like they are under attack. This is because Christians, and primarily the white evangelicals, have confused power with liberty.
“The white evangelical church has lost power but gained liberty and doesn’t like the trade,” French said. “When you have power you feel free, but in reality, you aren’t. Liberty is the principle that limits power.”
French went on to argue that religious liberty is not a secondary right, it is co-equal to free speech and other fundamental rights. It is protected in the Bill of Rights because the founders understood that religious liberty is essential for a free society.
“Freedom gives us the ability to pursue justice,” French said. “Your religious liberty does not hang by a thread, but our morals do; religious liberty is winning.”
In a later session, Perry spoke about the relationship between religious freedom and Christian nationalism. He argued that religious nationalism is a dangerous ideology that threatens both religious freedom and democracy.
“Religious nationalism is the belief that a particular religious tradition should be the dominant force in society,” Perry said.
The conference also featured several panel discussions on the challenges affecting religious freedom in the 21st century, such as digital hatred, workplace accommodations and political and religious extremism. On one panel, the panelists discussed a wide range of topics, including the rise of Christian nationalism, the decline of religious affiliation and the increasing hostility towards religious minorities.
The conference concluded with a call to action. Speakers encouraged attendees to have respectful conversations with family, friends and people of other faiths about the importance of religious liberty in society.