As kids, we all learned about the founding of the United States and how free exercise of religion was the driving idea behind the whole American project. In many ways, as the story goes, religious liberty, is the heart of the United States.
Fast forward to today and, you’ve probably noticed, debates about religious liberty are louder and more public than any time in recent memory. In states like Missouri and North Carolina and Georgia, recent religious liberty legislative bills met loud opposition from people both within and outside those states.
Critics of these measures claim they carry significant implications for members of the LGBT community. In some cases, they say, bills like the one proposed in Mississippi allow business owners to deny services to LGBT people, if the owners think serving them conflicts with their faith.
In Georgia, major corporations and Hollywood film companies threatened to leave the state if its governor didn’t veto a religious freedom bill that made it all the way to his desk. Last week, comedian Tracy Morgan canceled a show in Mississippi in boycott of that state’s new religious liberty bill.
On the other side, supporters of increased protections for religious liberty claim that—even in high-profile cases involving bakers, photographers and people like Kim Davis—the only victims of religious intolerance are those who actually hold religious convictions.
The contrarian writer of the Get Religion blog, Terry Mattingly, recently published an editorial pronouncing “Religious Liberty Is a Scary Term.” In it, he highlights the disconnect between the term and the culture. One of his sources puts it simply: “Religious liberty is something that only old white men believe in.”
Religious liberty, it seems, is controversial.
But part of this problem, at least as I see it, is that the term itself is widely used but rarely defined. And like most churchy buzzwords—think “worldview,” “community” and “kingdom”—overuse renders the meaning even more elusive. But just like those terms, we can’t afford to concede ambiguity to religious liberty.
Religious Liberty in the United States
For the United States, religious freedom in practice starts with the First Amendment. It says,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
But even before this amendment became official in December 1791, religious liberty—or freedom of conscience—was central to the young country. Writing to the United Baptists of Virginia, May 10, 1789, George Washington himself wrote:
If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have places my signature to it …
And then, not a year later (August 18, 1790), Washington wrote a similar letter—this time to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island:
The Citizens of the United States have every right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
For Washington, as the Constitution reflects, freedom of conscience wasn’t just about Christianity or even religion per se. Rather, for the country to work for all citizens—religious or not—he knew it needed to establish freedom for religion. This meant political and societal tolerance for the religious choices of others—Muslims, Buddhists, humanists and, yes, Christians.
Religious Liberty in the Bible
Of course, we Christians shouldn’t assume that something central to the United States is also central to our faith. We’ve been down that road, and it’s ugly. But just because we wouldn’t say religious liberty is “central” to Christianity—at least I wouldn’t—doesn’t mean it’s not important.
In his massive book about politics and the Bible, theologian Wayne Grudem details the foundations of religious liberty from the Christian faith. He begins, of course, with Matthew 22:21: “In Jesus’ statement about God and Caesar, he established the broad outlines of a new order in which ‘the things that are God’s’ are not to be under the control of civil government (or ‘Caesar’),” Grudem writes. Jesus is saying that there “is one realm of activity under the authority of civil government and another realm of activity under the direct authority of God.”
As an example, Grudem points to the practices of the earliest churches. He writes:
Support for the idea that government should not control the church (or synagogue or mosque) is found in the selection of church off in the New Testament. The first apostles were chosen by Jesus, not by a Roman official (see Matt 10:1-4). The early church, not any government official, chose ‘seven men of good repute’ to oversee the distribution of food to the needy (Act 6:3). Paul gave qualifications for elders and deacons that would have been evaluated by those within the church (see Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:3-9). There was clearly no involvement by the civil government, neither by local officials nor by the Roman Empire, in any selection of officers in the early church.
This is because, contrary to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the government of the church and government of the state are different systems of government, and the have authority over different groups of people, for different purposes.
The New Testament establishes clearly that the Church is not subject to the state—we answer to an authority far higher. The Bible, though, doesn’t necessarily suggest a model for what this looks like. But when you look, for example, at how the apostle Paul describes the work of the Church in 2 Corinthians 5—“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.”—you can see that an ideal context for Christianity (if there is such a thing) is one in which we are free to “persuade others” with the message of the Gospel.
Here in the United States, the biblical roots of religious liberty aren’t lost—even among the ardently secular. Of all people, writer H.L. Menken, one of the most important and popular writers in the history of American journalism—and no fan of religion, much less Christianity—saw this clearly. He wrote in 1926 (which I found here):
The debt of democracy to Christianity has always been underestimated. … Long centuries before Rousseau was ever heard of, or Locke or Hobbs (sic), the fundamental principles of democracy were plainly stated in the New Testament, and elaborately expounded by the early fathers, including St. Augustine.
Religious Liberty in Our Culture
In 2009, leaders from different streams of Christianity—Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University; Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School; and Chuck Colson, the founder of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview—wrote a manifesto called the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.” In it, they described religious liberty like this:
“Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience. No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions.”
And there lies the rub. This idea that people should “express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions” can certainly sound like a license for bigotry and even racism. And this is exactly the tone a lot of our current debates take.
Last week, I talked with Os Guinness, one of our society’s most influential cultural critics who has written widely on all kinds of issues and particularly about the first amendment. Back in the 1990s, he even wrote some of President Bill Clinton’s speeches on the topic. I asked Guinness—who, his name should tell you, isn’t originally from the US (and, yes, it’s that Guinness)—about some of our cultural angst about religious liberty and why the concept matters in the first place.
“The current view that religious freedom is both partisan and prejudice and doing the things you mentioned [like promoting bigotry] is very recent,” he told me. A common misunderstanding, he said, is that “Religious freedom has been taken as freedom for the religious. Whereas, of course, it includes naturalistic, secular worldviews like atheism, as well as transcendental supernatural worldviews like the Christian faith or Judaism.”
He argues strongly that religious liberty is the “first freedom” of the United States. He doesn’t mean “first” just because it’s the first amendment, but because it’s a logical priority. His reasoning takes a technical turn here but his point is important. He said:
Take the three political rights: (1) freedom of conscience, (2) freedom of speech and (3) freedom of assembly. There’s no hierarchy, that would be invidious, but they are interlocking. Freedom of assembly assumes and requires freedom of speech. You wanna get together with people to whom you want to say something that matters; you don’t want only to talk about the weather. Freedom of speech includes, assumes and requires freedom of conscience. You’re talking about things that matter to you, because you’re convinced of them based on your conscience.
Freedom of conscience, then, is far different from freedom of choice—freedom of choice is autonomous, like what cereal you buy or what color shirt you want. That’s a matter of your preference. But, freedom of conscience you respect because people are not free: They’re bound by the dictates of conscience. And that’s why, since the Reformation of Martin Luther right down to the first amendment, [religious liberty has] been respected as the first freedom.
Then Guinness summarized his answer to my question like only he can: “For the current generation to dismiss [freedom of conscience] as either purely partisan or a matter of prejudice … is incredibly short-sighted and foolish.”
What makes these dismissals of religious liberty “foolish”? The first freedom, contrary to popular assumptions, isn’t set up to suppress or silence minority views and practices at all—it’s just the opposite: Religious freedom is about protecting those who find themselves outside the majority. And this matters to Christians not only because we ourselves hold minority beliefs, but also because we want our to see our neighbors’ minority views protected, too.
Honestly, we Christians in the US—much, much less the broader culture—will probably never arrive at a consensus on what religious freedom should look like or even how strongly we should fight for it. But it’s something we can’t lose and from which we shouldn’t shy away—no matter how loud the social media majority is.