This year, March Madness ran right up to Holy Week in the Christian calendar. Millions of Americans who began the week watching NCAA basketball finals would head to church at the weekend to commemorate Good Friday and Easter.
But religious institutions got quite a bit of attention before the tournament’s end. The NCAA women’s championship showcased two religious universities, Baptist Baylor and Catholic Notre Dame, meeting for the title game April 3.
The Baylor Lady Bears won handily, capping a 40-0 record for the season—unprecedented in Division I basketball—and continuing a great athletic year for the world’s largest Baptist university. The men’s basketball team made it to the quarterfinals.
Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, who won the Heisman Trophy in December, is expected to be a top pick in the NFL draft late this month. (The Washington Redskins certainly could use him.)
“I'm so proud of the way our athletes use their God-given gifts coupled with their very hard work,” Baylor President Ken Starr told an AP sports writer. “The voice of Baylor athletics is quite eloquent right now.”
That “voice” is just one expression of the excellence the Baptist school and other religious educational institutions pursue in all arenas—from athletics to academics to arts to applied learning—in service to God and society at large. Such a mission makes faith-based institutions major contributors to the common good.
Baylor’s president reminded students in a March 21 chapel service about that mission and what motivates it.
“In the midst of March Madness,” Starr said, “we pause to reflect” on the events of Easter week and Christians’ call “to what the Apostle Paul described as a new life of freedom through a unique and unparalleled sacrificial death.”
“At Baylor, we are called to be ambassadors of that new life,” Starr continued. “To that end, we gather in chapel to learn, to know, to discern. We come humbly to reflect on truths that transcend lecture halls, and extend beyond the world of the laboratory. We gather together in community to reflect on incalculable certainties.”
Religious education offers a unique opportunity to grapple with ultimate questions about our nature and purpose as human beings. Churches and other faith-based ministries serve members of the broader community trying to come to grips with the same questions. Crises surrounding these matters of meaning are often at the root of drug addiction, relational dysfunction and other problems that government welfare programs try to triage but rarely overcome.
Life’s struggles, the mystery of existence and the prospect of death challenge each person to wrestle with questions of transcendence and divine reality. Religious freedom recognizes the right of all to pursue these transcendent ends, individually and in community.
This right is granted not by government but by the Creator. By respecting religious freedom, government acknowledges that these ultimate issues are outside its reach and that conscience must answer to a higher authority than the law of the land.
That’s why the American Founders were deeply deferential to the role of religion in public life, for forming the virtues freedom requires—honesty and industriousness among them—and responding to needs in society. Recent efforts to push religion out of the public square clash with the ideas that built America.
In New York, for example, City Hall has prohibited churches from meeting in vacant public school buildings on weekends. Allowing churches to meet in government-run schools, ACLU lawyers argue, would send the message that the state endorses their religion.
But advocates of religious liberty say religious groups should have the same freedom as other groups.
“The city can’t single out religious expression and treat it worse than the expression of everybody else,” said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund.
For now, a temporary court order means the churches can stay while the lawsuit proceeds.
Government already has its hands full. It makes sense to make room in empty schools and society generally for churches and faith-based institutions addressing tough questions and troubled communities in ways government cannot.
That was the game plan by which the Founders—those original “coaches” in ordered liberty—built America’s unprecedented program to excel. It’s time to put their vision back in full motion.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.” On Twitter: @MarshallJenA