JENNIFER MARSHALL: Freedom for faith on the field

By Jennifer Marshall

Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas and marathoner Ryan Hall are among the latest in a string of athletes whose Christian faith has made a big impression along with their exceptional physical abilities. Last season’s faithful headliners included NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and NBA point guard Jeremy Lin.

At the London games, Douglas became the darling of American fans. But not everyone welcomes her readiness, and that of other sports stars, to express public gratitude to God for their gifts and success. That uneasiness tracks with public policy trend toward pushing religious practice out of the public square to private realms.

“I’ve often wondered what it is about Christians like Douglas that unnerves me so,” one writer at Salon.com observed. She took issue with comments the gymnast made after becoming the first black American to win a gold medal in the women’s individual all-around.

In an interview with NBC, Douglas said: “I give all the glory to God. It’s kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to Him and the blessings fall down on me.”

Easy to say when you’re winning, the Salon scribe wrote, but what about when you’re not — when bad things happen? That’s a fair theological question, and one that was answered in her inauspicious finale in London, when she fell in the balance beam routine.

But it’s not appropriate to suggest an athlete should hold her tongue rather than simply give thanks as a part of a victory celebration.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Obama administration’s arguments for its Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring employer coverage of contraception suggest an interpretation of religious liberty that increasingly would restrict that freedom to private spheres, in houses of worship and personal piety. That means groups serving their larger communities or family businesses seeking to exercise deeply held beliefs in the workplace don’t enjoy the same religious liberty.

Why narrow religious liberty in this way? Particularly given the many public benefits of vibrant religious practice throughout American history? Many of these are intangible. But some can be calculated, and are well documented.

Take volunteering, for example. According to data presented at FamilyFacts.org, volunteerism among individuals who attend religious services each week tends to be greater than the national average and among those who attend less frequently. Those who practice their religious faith regularly also are much more likely to give to charity.

Patrick Fagan of the conservative Family Research Council, who studies the significance of religion in sustaining America’s ordered liberty, deftly sums up its importance.

“The widespread practice of religious beliefs is one of America’s greatest national resources,” Fagan writes. “It strengthens individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole. It significantly affects educational and job attainment and reduces the incidence of such major social problems as out-of-wedlock births, drug and alcohol addiction, crime, and delinquency.”

The overwhelming weight of the evidence should have a significant impact on policymakers’ decisions as they seek to address challenging social problems, Fagan says: “No other dimension of the nation’s life, other than the health of the family (which the data show also is tied powerfully to religious practice) should be of more concern to those who guide the future course of the United States.”

With all these social benefits from religious practice, the pushback against public religious expression — including policy proposals restricting the breadth of religious liberty — are misplaced.

The late columnist William Raspberry certainly thought so. He once observed: “Almost every commentator on the current scene bemoans the increase of violence, lowered ethical standards and loss of civility that mark American society. Is the decline of religious influence part of what is happening to us? Is it not just possible that anti-religious bias masquerading as religious neutrality is costing more than we have been willing to acknowledge?”

Raspberry wrote that in 1993. The challenges have mounted in the last two decades. It’s time we count the cost of narrowing religious liberty and reverse course toward a more constitutional understanding of the Founders’ intent of freedom for religion.

As Gabby Douglas said, “It’s kind of a win-win situation.”

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation; www.heritage.org.