Podcast: Beyond Belief

How do we live together as one nation of people with so many different religious faiths?  Kristen Looney of the Religious Freedom Center shares her insights.


In this episode of The First Five, Lata Nott talks to Kristen Looney of the Religious Freedom Center about what religious liberty means, why it’s so important, and what religious and non-religious people alike need to know in order to navigate their differences.

“[T]here’s no religious freedom at all, unless there’s religious freedom for all. And what that means, basically, is that if I’m able to have freedom of conscience, and belief, and not be afraid to believe what I do, and to practice my beliefs…I need to make sure that the person living next to me, the person living across the street, the person who lives down the block, across the river, each and every person also needs to have that right.

Whether they are agnostic, or atheist, or Buddhist, or Muslim, or Scientologist, or Christian, or Jew, we need to protect these rights. If I have these rights, it’s my responsibility to make sure my neighbors have those same rights. If I don’t feel like I currently have those rights, then I need to make sure that I’m fighting for those rights, and to make sure that we, as a community, as a country, are living up to these basic principles that were established in our constitution.”

–Kristen Looney, Director of Partnerships, Religious Freedom Center


Lata Nott is the Executive Director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute.


Kristen Looney is the Director of Partnerships of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute.  Previously, she was the head of programs and partnerships for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in the United States, and prior to that she served as chaplain and department chair of religious studies at St. Paul’s School for Girls in Baltimore, Maryland and St. Timothy’s School in Stevenson, Maryland.  Kristen is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maryland and has a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School.


To learn more about religious liberty education, check out the Religious Freedom Center.

Lata Nott:

Welcome to The First Five, a program of the Newseum Institute in Washington, DC. Dedicated to the five freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment. The First Five is a podcast where we cut through the legal jargon and explain to you exactly how your first amendment freedoms work. And what you can do to protect them. I’m your host, Lata Nott.








The first amendment’s well known, but also very often misunderstood. That’s kind of the basis for this entire podcast. But if I had to pick the most misunderstood freedom guaranteed by the first amendment, I’d say freedom of religion. What does it mean to be free to practice your religion, and what happens when your religious beliefs run up against someone else’s religious beliefs? And how are any of us supposed to navigate a society where so many people believe so many different things?








As to that last question, I have absolutely no idea. But I’m lucky enough to have an expert close at hand who does. My guest today is Kristen Looney, who runs the religious freedom center right here at the Newseum. The religious freedom center focuses on educating the public about religious freedom, promoting dialogue between different groups of people, and offering courses and resources that can help educators and community leaders handle religious issues. Kristen has a masters in divinity from Yale Divinity School, and is an Episcopal priest. So actually, she’s the reverend Kristen Looney. Kristen, thanks for being here. And first off, why do you think it’s important for people to be informed about religious freedom?


Kristen Looney:







I think if you read through your Facebook feed, if you pick up the newspaper, if you still do that, if you’re reading the news online, most of the topics and the articles right now really could touch on religious freedom issues, whether they’re environmental issues, whether it’s about health, women’s health, whether it’s about rights, LGBTQ rights, whether it’s about religion being taught in the classroom, so many of the issues that our communities are dealing with today could be seen as religious liberty issues, religious freedom issues. And so our center really focuses on educating the American public about what these issues are, and to remind Americans that every single person, whether you are religious or not, really has a stake in preserving these rights that were put in our constitution over 200 years ago.


Lata Nott:

So why do you think we all have a stake in protecting these rights? What’s so important about them?



Kristen Looney:











Well there’s a saying that says religious freedom … there’s no religious freedom at all, unless there’s religious freedom for all. And what that means, basically, is that if I’m able to have freedom of conscience, and belief, and not be afraid to believe what I do, and to practice my beliefs, that I have that freedom to do that, and I need to make sure that the person living next to me, the person living across the street, the person who lives down the block, across the river, each and every person also needs to have that right. Whether they are agnostic, or atheist, or Buddhist, or Muslim, or Scientologist, or Christian, or Jew, we need to protect these rights. If I have these rights, it’s my responsibility to make sure my neighbors have those same rights. If I don’t feel like I currently have those rights, then I need to make sure that I’m fighting for those rights, and to make sure that we, as a community, as a country, are living up to these basic principles that were established in our constitution.


Lata Nott:

So what you’re saying is that the right is indivisible. That if you take it away from one group, then essentially you’re damaging the right for every religious group?



Kristen Looney:








Absolutely. Absolutely. And you can see, in some communities, if you are a Baptist, then you never have to think about when you go into your place of worship, you’re not worried about people picketing outside, or you’re not worried about the zoning issues, whether you can build a new Baptist church. You’re not worried about maybe the cross that you’re wearing around your neck. But there might be places in the United States where you wouldn’t feel as comfortable. Or if you’re Muslim, are there certain places in this country where you are a little bit worried about walking into your mosque, you are worried about wearing Hijab. You are worried about getting that zoning license so you can go ahead and build a worship community for your family.




And so these are basic rights that our country, our founders, envisioned that we would have as a people. And we’ve really struggled, for the last 200 years, to figure this out. It really is a bold experiment. How do we live together as one nation of people of many different faiths? How do we do that? There have been periods in our country where we’ve done it well, and there are periods in our country where we haven’t done it well.





And in the last few decades, what’s really interesting is that the religious landscape, in the United States, has really changed dramatically. And as the religious landscape has changed, as we’ve become more diverse, we have also seen that there has been quite a significant rise in religious intolerance. And, in fact, the FBI statistics just recently came out for 2016, which have shown that hate crimes have reached a five year high, and many of them are because of religious bias.









And so it’s interesting to contemplate, what does it mean that we are changing as Americans, in terms of what our religious landscape looks like, and at the same time, we are seeing a higher increase in religious intolerance. I suspect what we’re not doing well in communities is figuring out how to deal with the changes that we’re seeing, that we’re feeling, that we’re hearing on a daily basis. We don’t seem to have the mechanisms in our society to deal with these changes. And so one of the things that we advocate for at the religious freedom center is that we, as Americans, become more religiously literate. And that means we really understand the different religious traditions that exist, side-by-side, in this community, and we really understand them.


Lata Nott:

So what exactly does religious literacy mean? What do we need to know about various religions, and religious groups that exist?



Kristen Looney:








Well the American Academy of Religion has put together guidelines for teaching about religion, in K through 12 public schools in the United States. And they’ve adopted some of the guidelines that professor Dianne Moore, of the Religious Literacy Project has talked about when she explains what religiously … what it means to be religiously literate. And the six premises basically are that religions are internally diverse, as opposed to uniform, and as an Episcopal priest, I certainly know, looking within my denomination, you will have people who practice their faith in different ways, who have very different understandings about how to approach social problems in the United States, that will be very different in terms of what they really believe happens, when you come to the table and you celebrate holy communion. What happens at the table?







And so just within my own particular parish that I belong to, I can see that there is a diversity of belief, and behavior, and sense of belonging that people have, within my own community. And then, if I replicate that across the entire, not only the Episcopal church, but the Anglican Communion, which is international, then I can multiply that, and see there’s huge diversity, just within the Anglican Communion. That as an Episcopal priest in the United States, I might worship and celebrate in one way, and a colleague of mine in Nigeria might celebrate in a completely different way.









That’s just one tiny denomination within Christianity. If I look at the Baptist church, if I look at the Lutheran church, if I look at the Roman Catholic church, if I look at the Greek Orthodox church, there are huge variations within. So religions are internally diverse, and that’s just within Christianity. What about looking at Islam? What if we look at Judaism? So it’s important, I think, to understand that, if you meet someone who is Jewish, or Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Sikh. You can’t just assume that you understand how they act out their faith, or what their beliefs are. You really need to ask them, because religions are internally diverse.





It’s also important to remember that religions evolve, and they change over time. And so if you look at 2,000 years of Christianity, you didn’t have women at the beginning who were ordained. It wasn’t until the 1980s that women in the Episcopal church, in my own denomination, were ordained. There are still many denominations where women are not allowed to be ordained. And so religions evolve. They change over time.





You can certainly look at the issues about gay marriage, and at the beginning, in Christianity, in those early years, you certainly didn’t see men and men, or women and women involved and being married, and having that marriage blessed by a church. There are denominations today, within Christianity, that will bless a marriage between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. Not all Christian denominations will. Not all Christian parishes will. So you can see that religions do evolve. They do change over time.








And I think the third one is to remember that religious influences are really embedded in all dimensions of culture. And so it’s important to think about the context. And so, as an Episcopal priest, living in Baltimore, that’s where my home is, and serving at the parish that I attend, that’s gonna look very, very different. The way I do and lead worship services will look very different than if I were in another country, in a different part of the world, or maybe even in a very different place in the United States. And so religious influences are embedded in culture. You can’t really separate them from culture.






So these are some of the guidelines that the AAR offers, in terms of religious diversity, and what it means to really be religiously literate. To really understand the different traditions. The different religious traditions, and to understand that there is incredible diversity within them. So that’s really the first step.


Lata Nott:

So I was gonna ask you what you think the major misconceptions people have about religion is, and it sounds like you’re saying that one of them is that if you belong to a particular religion, we can assume that everyone who belongs to this particular religion holds the same beliefs, and the same values, and the same cultural practices. But not a good assumption?


Kristen Looney:







You can’t. Absolutely. I mean there are Christians that don’t believe in God. So you have to say, “Well how is that possible?” Well, perhaps they are attracted to the particular church because of the community. They feel a sense of belonging there. Or perhaps it’s because the rituals are really beautiful to them, and they want to have that sense of having a ritual that speaks to them, in some way. And yet, the actual concept of God, they struggle with. And so I think there are very, very few things that you could assume about one person who happens to say, and label themselves as a particular adherent of a religious tradition.


Lata Nott:

So you can’t take that for granted, then?


Kristen Looney:



Lata Nott:

What do you wish that people understood about religious freedom? I mean, you mentioned the diversity of traditions, that you can’t brand everybody with the same label. But what else? Are there other things that are important for the public to know?



Kristen Looney:







My wish would be that people would take time to really listen to each other. To ask questions. To learn about a tradition that they don’t understand, and to really find out, what are the similarities that you have? What are the differences? Not be afraid of the differences, to really explore them, but even to find opportunities to see where is that common ground that we have? Because, on the outside, you might completely dress differently. The way you worship might be completely different. The way you approach life, the way you approach your giving, the way you engage in society might be different.










But chances are there is something that you both deeply believe that brings you together. And that might be … the one thing that brings you together might be the belief that every American has the right of freedom of conscience, and that you might completely disagree with each other in every other different way, but you believe that, as Americans, these rights are so fundamental to who we are as a people. We are a diverse people, and yet we are one nation. And the only way that we are going to survive as a nation is if we learn how to live with these deepest differences. And so that’s my challenge, is to really encourage people to be brave enough to ask questions. To get to know someone who is different from yourself, who has a different belief system, whether they’re atheist, or agnostic, or one of the many, many, many religions that we have here in our country, and to learn about them.


Lata Nott:


That sounds wonderful, actually, just knowing a little bit more about your neighbors, and what motivates them is just so important to having a functioning society, I think. So what kind of work is the religious freedom center doing towards that goal, right now?


Kristen Looney:










Well, we really try to offer as many resources as we can to religious leaders, and community leaders, to educators, to attorneys, to business leaders who are really dealing with these issues on a daily basis. As I said earlier, we are becoming a more religiously diverse community. Many of our communities are, and we don’t have these mechanisms to naturally learn about each other. And so businesses are having to deal with this, to figure out, how do we make sure that there are combinations? Schools are certainly needing to deal with these issues, as we figure out, we have many different types of students in our schools, and how do we make sure that they are comfortable, and welcome, and that they have all the freedoms that everyone else does?






We are offering courses. We offer semester long courses, specifically focused on the history of religious freedom in America, human rights, religion in the media, and that is a very interesting course, which focuses on how religions are often reported in the media, and then we have another course that really focuses on what are the court cases, and how have laws changed over time, within our country? Our goal is to really give our religious leaders and civic leaders the skills and the knowledge they need to do the work that they’re already doing, in their community, but to help them feel a little bit more confident when they’re having to speak about religious freedom issues, religious liberty issues, religious literacy issues within their community.








We’re doing the same for educators. We’ve just created four semester-long courses for them. We’ve also created professional development materials for teachers, that are being piloted right now, in a couple of school districts in Georgia, which we’re very excited about. And we’re gonna be launching those to teachers and educators across the nation starting in early 2018. And again, we’re hoping that these will help teachers, and administrators, and parents in school districts, and even religious leaders in school districts, have the confidence and competence to really understand these issues, especially the religious freedom, religious liberty, and education and public school issues.





Our goal is really to highlight some of the major issues that are happening within our country, in terms of religious liberty issues, and to help the American public understand them. We’re non-sectarian, we’re non-partisan, and so we really focus on giving leaders the skills so they can use these skills within their communities.


Lata Nott:






Right, and that’s so necessary sometimes. I especially think, when you were talking about teachers, that I can imagine, you’re public school teacher, it can be very difficult to talk to your students about religion, because first of all, what can you say and what can’t you say, in a public school, and then of course, if you’re trying to talk about different religious traditions, and you yourself are not that informed about them, it can be a minefield, and it’s great to have resources like that that can help you navigate that.


Kristen Looney:





Well I think that’s why we’re doing it. We’re trying to fill a niche. There are a lot of clergy training centers, there’s seminaries that don’t give these skills and this knowledge to clergy who are coming out, and then often find themselves dealing with issues within their community, and the same goes with educators. Schools of education often don’t have opportunities, or provide opportunities for pre-service teachers to learn about the different religious traditions that they’re gonna run into, within their own communities. And they certainly don’t really spend a lot of time, if any time, talking about, how do you teach about religion, constitutionally, in schools?




There is kind of this big myth out there that we’re really trying to combat, which many people say, because of church and state, and separation thereof, that you can’t talk about religion in public schools, and that’s just not true. And in fact, the Supreme Court has said it’s a really important part of a well rounded education, but you have to do it, academically, and you can’t teach religion confessionally. So our goal is to really support teachers, and help them understand what that means.



Lata Nott:


That’s great. Yeah, that’s something people say a lot. Like, “Well students can’t pray in public schools, because of the separation of church and state, or teachers can’t talk about it,” but it’s more about … you don’t want a public school endorsing religion, or endorsing a particular religion. But they can certainly talk about it. And students can certainly pray, right?


Kristen Looney:


Absolutely. Absolutely. Teachers in the school are public officials, and so they need to make sure that they, when talking about religion, are neutral, but they certainly can teach about it and that word “about” is really important, because that is really an academic approach to teaching about religion.





But students have freedom of speech, and so they are able to talk about their experiences if it is appropriate to the assignment in the classroom, and as long as they’re not proselytizing. It’s certainly something that they can do. But there are a lot of nuances, and so I can certainly understand where teachers are nervous about it, and so that’s what our goal is, to make sure that we’re providing professional development for teachers to be able to feel a little bit more confident, because they are dealing with religion all the time.




When you think about it, if you’re looking at any current event, recently, it’s gonna touch on a religious tradition, or more than one, and certainly in history, in civics, you are gonna deal with all sorts of issues that touch on religious liberty. And so giving teachers the skills to be able to deal with these issues, I think, is very important. And that’s what we’re trying to do, as a center.










We also know that there are a lot of parents who also haven’t had this training, and there have been lawsuits that we have seen in different parts of the country. Parents who are nervous about their children learning about a tradition that is not their own tradition. And again, we want to make sure that school districts, that superintendents, that school boards, that administrators have this knowledge, so they feel very confident, and are able to educate the whole community about how can you do this, in a constitutional way, and how can you do this so all the students have these wonderful rights, protected for them?


Lata Nott:












That’s great. And especially useful, given that religious freedom is such a core right. It touches on, well, your deepest beliefs, like you said. And the fact that most of us just know so little about it, and don’t know how to talk about it, I think it’s great that you guys are there to provide resources. So now I’m going to ask you a question that might be impossible to answer, and I apologize in advance, but so many of the controversies that touch upon religion … you know, they do pit core beliefs against core beliefs. Like for instance, there’s a case coming up in the Supreme Court, the masterpiece case, where a baker refused to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple getting married, because that couple’s marriage violates his religious beliefs. And I think, when you look at that, I mean, as you were saying, when you try to find common ground, is that possible, when two people’s core beliefs are so different? When religion dictates that.


Kristen Looney:




Well, it will be very interesting to see what the court decides with this, and the implications from this case will certainly ripple throughout the communities. And it’s a very difficult case. And I’m not sure which way it’s gonna come down. I do think that, with many of these issues, we just have to learn how to live side-by-side. That there is no way that we, as Americans, are ever going to agree on anything, really. And everything.













And so what we have to do is learn how to live with each other. And the court is gonna be making a pretty big decision, here, and, as communities, what’s gonna be very interesting is how are the communities gonna respond after this? Because there’s gonna be a lot of pain after this. A lot of people are gonna be very upset, whether it goes one way or the other. So how are we gonna respond to this? How are we going to heal after this, I think, is a really important question to think about. How are we gonna reach out across the aisle and across our differences, and even if we completely disagree with what the court says, how are we gonna continue to live as communities, together? And I think that’s a really important question to ask, because this case does bring up such core beliefs, I think, and the way it is decided is gonna be devastating on either side.


And so I think it’s gonna test us, as Americans, to really live into what we’ve been trying to do. How do we live as one nation? Many, many different faiths. And still be able to find that common ground, and live together, despite our differences. So I think that’s gonna be the harder work, on the other side.



Lata Nott:


How do we do that? How do we reconcile? How do our communities stay together, after that?


Kristen Looney:





Well, one of the things that we, again, advocate for, is civil dialogue. And really finding intentional opportunities to engage in dialogue with one another over our deepest differences, and so we find opportunities here at the center to engage in civil dialogue. We teach the skills of civil dialogue. All the leaders that come to our programs, we make sure that they have the skills of civil dialogue, so they’re able to take those out into their communities, because, again, we truly believe that you can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can’t talk with one another, and learn from one another, communicate with one another about these deepest differences, you’re never gonna be able to find that common ground.


Lata Nott:

That’s a good point. And thank you so much for engaging in this dialogue with me, I really appreciate it.



Kristen Looney:


It’s been a pleasure, thank you.


Lata Nott:







Thanks, Kristen. If you enjoyed this episode of The First Five, please leave a review for us on iTunes, or whatever service you use to listen to podcasts. The First Five will be going on hiatus for the holiday season, but we’ll be back in the new year. I hope you’ll be back, too. Thank you for being with us today, for another episode of The First Five. A production of the Newseum Institute, located at the Newseum, in the heart of Washington, DC. The Newseum, where there’s more to every story. For more information about the Newseum Institute, go to NewseumInstitute.org.



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