Religious freedom vs. spiritual freedom


By Kathy Berken
On Deck

In the month of July, while we celebrate our nation’s freedom in 1776 from the control of Great Britain, we also remember the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock some 150 years before. Those brave souls began their arduous adventure in the New World, with the determination of religious freedom as their stronghold.

Although they left Great Britain because they believed that their Christian faith was incompatible with the Church of England, the pilgrims’ banner for religious freedom in the Plymouth Colony included only their brand of Calvinist Protestantism. They were intolerant of any other religions.

Four centuries later, the ideal of religious freedom still has not been settled with some of our citizens. The debate over where, whether and how to express our religious beliefs in public continues. Some want this country to be exclusively Christian but with little agreement about which denomination ought to predominate. Some want the freedom to practice their particular religion anywhere and everywhere, as we see in the legislation in Louisiana mandating the Ten Commandments be posted in every public-school classroom. Some want a complete separation of church and state, leaving all words, images and actions that hint at a supernatural being completely removed from any place that receives any funding from taxpayer dollars.


Although we’ve come a long way from the days of the early pilgrims, as we enjoy the freedom to worship as we choose — barring infringement on the rights of others — not all agree on what the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause means in everyday life. There are anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 world religions with varying denominations, churches and faith groups. We cannot realistically make room for each of those on tax-payer property.

It’s mind boggling, confusing and frustrating. I wish I had a simple solution. Instead, let’s look at the root of our disagreements regarding religious freedom and discern ways for practicing our deeply held faith without compromising our beliefs.

I have discovered in the past 10+ years of meeting with people for spiritual direction a sense of loneliness and sadness over changes in felt experiences with lifelong religious practices. Changes such as the loss of a spouse, retirement, moving or a new pastor can elicit these emotions.

Participation at Mass, devotions or daily prayer now leaves some feeling empty and distant. Many feel saddened that their children and grandchildren no longer practice their faith. They notice fewer people at church and their relationship with God feels sporadic. They bemoan the fact that they can’t pray in public places. If only people could bring God back into their lives, the world would be a better place, they say, but they don’t know how to make that happen.

So, we look at their spiritual practices. If God is everywhere, then God doesn’t need religious words, images, rituals or songs because God is also present when we are doing the dishes or taking out the garbage. Rather, we need religious practices to help us be aware of God’s presence, make us feel bonded as a community and remind us of our beliefs. Religion is like a house with specific furniture, pictures, food and music. Spirituality is like a home, joining us to something deeper than ourselves, giving us a feeling of belonging.

Religious freedom allows us to enter our religious house (the Catholic Church, in my case) to worship using those tangible items. Spiritual freedom allows us to be aware of God’s presence anywhere and everywhere, regardless of the environment. Religious freedom still has some necessary restrictions. Spiritual freedom is unencumbered. Let us celebrate both this July!

 (Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton  — The Arch from 1999-2009.)

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