Let Religious Freedom Ring
Why It's One of the Most Pressing Issues Today
By Timothy George
When Chuck Colson, Robert George, and I drafted the Manhattan Declaration back in 2009, some people questioned why we had chosen to include religious freedom, along with the sanctity of life and the integrity of marriage, as one of the three most pressing moral issues of our time. Life is sacred, and matrimony is holy, they said, but isn’t religious freedom just another “political” tenet? What does it have to do with the Christian faith?
It is true that there is a political dimension to religious freedom. Indeed, it is the “first” freedom enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Freedom of religion precedes and is the basis of other freedoms enumerated there: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition for a governmental redress of grievances. We can give thanks to God that in the charter documents of our country the American founders put in place these precious freedoms. They have served as a bulwark for the flourishing of our Republic across the years. They still constitute a crucial barrier to the totalitarian temptation which may be more present today than at any previous time in our history.
But long before the Constitution was written or America was discovered, Christians have confessed that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” In the fourth century, Lactantius said, “Religion cannot be a matter of coercion.” The foremost of the Latin Fathers, Augustine, said, “No one can believe except willingly.” In the early years of the Reformation, Luther asserted that “where the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them.” These luminaries, joined with the voices of Aquinas, Calvin, Puritan dissenter Roger Williams, and Baptist pastor Isaac Backus, among others, have collectively declared that no one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience, or be prevented from freely and publicly expressing deeply held religious convictions. And this applies not only to individuals, but to churches and other faith-based and religious communities as well.
Religious freedom is not merely political; it is pre-political. As a fundamental, “unalienable” right, it existed before the state. Religious freedom did not begin in modern times; it began when God brought humanity into existence. Rooted in the biblical understanding of human dignity and freedom, religious freedom is a part of what it means to be created in the image of God.
A just government is called to recognize and protect the religious freedoms that have been built into human nature by God. Christians know—even if secular theorists deny it—that religious liberty is grounded in the very character of God as revealed in the Bible, and in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ himself. But we do not claim religious freedom for ourselves only. It applies to all persons everywhere. That is why we affirm, on the authority of the Bible, religious freedom for all, even as we are prepared to defend such freedom in public life through arguments drawn from reason as well as revelation.
Today religious freedom is under assault as Christians face harassment and persecution in many countries around the world. According to the World Evangelical Alliance, Christians are “the largest single group in the world…being denied human rights on the basis of their faith.” Out of concern for the growing threat to religious freedom, two years ago Evangelicals and Catholics Together released a statement titled “In Defense of Religious Freedom.” It says, in part:
While the threats to freedom of faith, religious practice, and religious participation in public affairs in Islamist and communist states are widely recognized, grave threats to religious freedom have also emerged in the developed democracies. In the West, certain religious beliefs are now regarded as bigoted. Pastors are under threat, both cultural and legal, for preaching biblical truth. Christian social-service and charitable agencies are forced to cease cooperation with the state because they will not bend their work to what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Proponents of human rights, including governments, have begun to define religious freedom down, reducing it to a bare “freedom of worship.” This reduction denies the inherently public character of biblical religion and privatizes the very idea of religious freedom, a view of freedom such as one finds in those repressive states where Christians can pray only so long as they do so behind closed doors. It is no exaggeration to see in these developments a movement to drive religious belief, and especially orthodox Christian religious and moral convictions, out of public life.
Sadly, religious freedom is also being encroached upon and threatened here in the United States. Both the courts and the administrative and regulatory policies are directing the coercive power of the state against Christian believers because of their conscientious adherence to the most sacred principles of their faith. This very day, we await the Supreme Court’s ruling on whether Christian-owned and -operated Hobby Lobby should be compelled by the mandate of the Affordable Care Act to make certain methods of birth control available as part of its employee health plan.
Christians have been among the staunchest supporters of religious liberty. Today, as never before, we are called to join with each other, and indeed with all persons of goodwill, to seek the renewal of religious freedom in our culture. Just expressing our opinion is not enough. We are called to take a stand. We are called to make a commitment and to proclaim the “costly grace” we have freely received in Jesus Christ. You can do exactly that by joining hundreds of thousands of believing Christians—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—who have signed the Manhattan Declaration (www.manhattandeclaration.com). This declaration of conscience concludes with these words: “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”
Posted at First Things 6/30/14
is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.