If we go to a clothing store, we expect choose according to our taste and preference. There are practical concerns like size and season that may inform our choices, but we can buy any article of clothing in the store. It need not be our size or fit our marketing demographic. I can buy a pair of jeans that would be more suitable for a young man in his twenties. Besides the functional issues, clothing choice is a matter of style and taste. These define what we want to communicate about ourselves. It is our choice.
There are other decisions we make in life that define our story. If we accept or reject a marriage proposal, it has a great deal of impact on our life story. If we are able to choose between two career paths that appear to be significant, meaningful work, that choice will influence our income, our life-work balance, our mobility, our health, and our professional network. While practical concerns are expanded in impact and issues of the heart are deep, we still have a choice to make.
In our age of modern commerce, marketing towards our choices is common place. If we go to Starbucks, we expect to have a multitude of choices. If we book a hotel, we may be focused on price, amenities, location, or style. These type of decisions may appeal to our sense of self by helping us to define ourselves. Style, social association, and self-identification through our purchases is part of our modern culture. Most of us, including this author, participate in these social rituals.
This is not how freedom of religion works. We do not sit down with a list of tastes, preferences, and practical benefits of religion and decide what we want. If we have the luxury of choosing clothing, food or entertainment according to personal preference it is nice, fun and satisfying. Weighty decisions that influence our story or define our character are a part of all our lives. We should enjoy it. However, this is not how freedom of religion works for anyone. If we choose according to taste, this is not really encountering God. We are in the driver’s seat and God is in the back seat. In other words, we are our own God. That leaves us not with freedom of religion, but of perhaps freedom of association and freedom of expression. It may be a means of self-identification, not service to the God whom you have encountered. Freedom of religion is based not on my preferences, but on my convictions. A conviction is not centered on taste but on truths about justice, meaning, purpose, and story. We may have an appetite for the truth or we may not. A conviction takes hold of us so that whether we have an attraction to something or not, we pursue the stance consistent with the conviction. Convictions differ from preferences in that a preference is what we pursue for pleasure. Convictions are what take hold of us so that we are willing to suffer for them.
In a society where religion is handed down either by the family or by the state and there is no conviction on the part of the one practicing it, this is not freedom of religion. A religion handed down is one that means a person chooses what to do, not a religion taking hold of the person. God is not taking hold of the person. This is not a transcendent experience that encounters God, but a human experience where a person encounters human ritual, human thought, and human community. On a human level, we decide what we are going to do with that. Shall we embrace it? Shall we use it for social or business advantage? Shall we let it pass by as a social artifact? Shall we give lip service to the religion of the state or family? We have a lot of choices when religion is handed down. I can not speak authoritatively for other religions, but as Christians if it is simply the human experience we have lost the essence of Christianity. If there are no eternal truths, we are merely holding the shell of the Christian experience. If we have not met God through Jesus Christ, we are nominal Christians at best. When the United States was founded on freedoms, that freedom of religion principle was based on the idea that women and men should not have to suffer under the hand of the government for their convictions. The founders had observed how many people had suffered greatly for their convictions.
However, if we have freedom of religion we are not looking for preferences we are looking for convictions. A conviction is something we hold as a fundamental truth for which we will suffer to live up to. A conviction is not a preference we find within ourselves, but a principle whose importance, beauty and truth has captured our heart. In a sense freedom of religion means we are captive to truth, justice, and righteousness. A preference is that we can choose bottled, tap, mineral or sparkling water. A conviction is that there is only one source of living water. A conviction is not about my preference.