There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage. —John Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men
What is Religious Liberty?
It is the freedom for all people to live out their faith according to their deepest convictions. (Important caveat: there are limitations, when it legitimately harms the common good, such as public health, it is fair and reasonable for the government to restrict religious liberty, but to do so, it must demonstrate a compelling interest for why it is a must to impede a person’s religious liberty while doing so in the least infringing way possible).
Why Should Christians Care About Religious Liberty?
• Genesis 1:26-27. Humans are made in God’s image and they possess a conscience that helps them understand right and wrong. Human beings should be free to act on what they believe is their highest responsibility, obligation, and to pursue truth. True faith is always voluntary.
• Mark 12:31. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This simple truth implies a fundamental truth about living together in a diverse world. We should treat others the way we want to be treated. If we do not want our religious beliefs targeted for harassment by the government, we should not want the religious beliefs of other religions targeted either.
• Matthew 19:16-22. Rich young ruler – The man’s wishes to reject Jesus were respected by Jesus. The man was not coerced to follow Jesus.
• 1 Corinthians 10:31. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Religion entails a way of life. It is more than singing and praying and gathering in fellowship halls and sanctuaries. Religion stakes a claim on a person. Christianity demands that the believer live an integrated life. To have integrity is to integrate one’s beliefs with one’s actions.
• Acts 17:6-7. “And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” Christians do not take our ultimate orders from any president or legislature, but ultimately from Jesus. Christians also understand that they will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The government should not aim to be Lord of one’s religiously informed conscience.
• Matthew 28:18-20. Christians should care about religious liberty because it’s the pillar that allows the church to fulfill its mission. The effective and mass communication of the gospel depends on the freedom to proclaim it.
Constitutionally – Religious Liberty is Enshrined in the American Bill of Rights:
The Bill of Rights, established what is called the ‘first freedom’, that of Religious Liberty. The first Bill of Rights begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The freedom of religion is the foundation for all other freedoms. After all, if government can mandate what you believe or deny you the opportunity to live within your beliefs, then where will its reach end?
Why Did the Founders of Our Country Lay this Principle at the Very Foundation of Our Country?
• To be free to believe (or not believe), and free to live out those beliefs, is at the very cornerstone of a free society.
• Religious liberty arises from the truth that a person’s relationship with God is the most important relationship a person can have. No law or state should be able to interfere with a person’s relationship to God or his or her ability to live out his or her faith.
• In the same way, religious liberty teaches that religious truth cannot be coerced. Because it cannot be coerced, religion ought to be freely pursued.
• A government shouldn’t tell a citizen who God is or how God is to be worshipped. It is therefore right and good for persons, governments, or institutions to restrict themselves to the area that they’re designed to have authority over. A government is designed to see that laws are followed and that citizens are protected. The government is not designed to tell you or me what the me what the meaning of baptism is.
Religious liberty entails the careful balancing of a state’s right to uphold public order and the rights of citizens to freely exercise their religion in peaceful ways.
The state has legitimate authority under God (Though its authority is limited). The state should not set itself up as lord or god over the consciences of its people. The state exists not for the establishment of religion or the elimination of religion, but to protect the “free exercise of religion.”
Common Misunderstandings of Religious Liberty:
Religious liberty is often misunderstood today because we live in a society that is increasingly less religious. As a result, the views that religious liberty are designed to protect have less traction and support than they once did, which builds misunderstanding and even hostility.
Some opponents of religious liberty characterize “religious liberty” as a code word for bigotry. They warn that religious liberty is really a disguise for anti-gay, anti-liberal, or anti-progressive policies. Journalist now place scare quotes around “religious liberty” as though it were a pseudonym for discrimination.
It has now been customary to restrict the definition of religious liberty to freedom to worship. Freedom of worship communicates that individual should have only the right to gather together in houses of worship, and that a person’s ability to live out their faith is not protected. This is a reduction of the protections given in the Constitution.
With government expanding, it increasingly seeks to right wrongs and to encourage a set of behaviors and beliefs that is sometimes at odds with sincerely held religious beliefs. As governments continue to grow, we can expect that there will be more conflict with religion. This has come to a head recently with the growing numbers of conflicts between sexual liberties and religious liberty, including the pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving Lakewood, Colorado baker Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop.