Which, Not Whether

Last week, I wrote about the purpose of freedom. Freedom, I argued, is given by God so that we will pursue righteousness. Freedom is not an ultimate or final goal; obedience is. This week, I want to shift our focus towards religious freedom, or religious liberty. What is religious liberty? Are there any limits to religious liberty? Why is religious liberty, which our nation has historically celebrated, under threat today?


Our church’s statement of faith contains a section entitled “Religious Liberty”. It reads:

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000)

We believe the first freedom the government must recognize is the freedom of the individual to worship without coercion. God alone, indeed, is Lord of the conscience, not parents, not the government. Religious liberty, in order to be legitimate, requires freedom for individuals to practice their religion both privately and publicly. Religion isn’t less than private beliefs, but true religion is far more than thoughts in our heads. True religion dictates how we think and act in the world, with our families, as well as with other nations.


Here is the challenge: a government that recognizes and defends religious liberty must also make decisions about how citizens with vastly different worldviews ought to interact. In other words, while the government has no right to coerce beliefs, every government must coerce some behaviors. Every government must decide which actions are permissible and which will be prosecuted as criminal. This reality inevitably means religious liberty is not an unlimited liberty.

If you asked your neighbor why he was stacking firewood in the front lawn and he replied, “I’m just preparing to offer my child as a blood sacrifice,” you wouldn’t yell back to him, “Way to go! Man, I love religious liberty!” No, you would immediately call the Police and get the garden hose to soak the coals, and you would be right in doing so. The Police would also be in the right if they arrested the neighbor for attempted murder. They would limit the neighbor’s freedom of expressing his religious beliefs and they would be justified in their actions. Why? They would be justified because religious liberty cannot be an unlimited freedom. If one religion prohibits human sacrifice while another requires it, the government must out of necessity limit the freedom to express one religion or the other. To support one practice is to act against the religious views of the other. This is why the abortionist argument that “those who don’t like abortion don’t have to have abortions,” doesn’t pass muster. The same is true for those who wish to redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships. If the government sponsors a false definition of healthcare (abortion) or a false definition of marriage (sodomy) it has taken a stand against all who disagree and therefore limited their ability to practice their own views.


Religious liberty faces threats from multiple directions today, but I want to highlight one. Robert Benne, a professor at Roanoke College, writing about religious liberty, says:

“The first freedom that all peoples should enjoy is religious freedom, not only the freedom to worship as they choose but also the freedom to exercise their religion privately and publicly. There are limits, of course, to religiously based behavior when it clashes with the settled moral convictions of a country and its laws, but the latitude for such freedom ought to be wide indeed.” (Benne, Good & Bad Ways to Think About Religion And Politics, 78)

I want to draw your attention to three crucial words in that quote: “settled moral convictions.” Religious liberty works smoothly to the degree that the citizenry shares settled moral convictions. The reason for so much turmoil in American life today is precise because we have lost settled moral convictions. Put bluntly, we are in the middle of a moral crisis. Americans no longer agree on the most basic and foundational questions of existence, identity, the family, education, or ethics. Within our nation are competing understandings of the good, true, and the beautiful.

Just this week, a federal appeals court ruled that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes must be recognized as an official student group. Their official status had previously been revoked by the school district because the group required members to affirm a historically Biblical understanding of gender and sexuality. This requirement, of course, ran afoul of the moral views of the school district. In this instance, thankfully, the government sided with the FCA group and the federal court upheld their right to define their own members on religious and moral grounds. However, this case demonstrates the final point I want to leave you with in my letter: it’s not whether it’s which. We do not have a choice of whether we will affirm or prohibit certain expressions of moral beliefs. The only choice we have is which expressions will be permitted. The question is not whether there will be religious liberty. The question is which religious expressions will be permitted and which will be prohibited.

I haven’t spent much time in this letter giving pastoral counsel or advice but let me end with this exhortation: the church has a moral responsibility to every nation. We are to proclaim the Truth of all Truths: Christ risen and reigning. We are not to coerce belief with the power of the sword. However, any nation in which genuine spiritual renewal takes place will inevitably adopt the settled moral convictions of the citizenry. For that reason, we ought to preach and teach the Truth in our churches and homes so that our communities and nation can hear, repent, believe, and eventually obey.

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