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Religious Freedom & Christian Faith

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?

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.” They have 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 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. Rooted in the biblical understanding of human dignity and freedom, it 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.” But, 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.

From the beginning of our history, Baptists have been among the staunchest supporters of religious liberty. Today, as never before, we are called to join with other Christians, 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 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.”

Published in The Baptist Messenger, June 3, 2014

Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and one of the drafters of the Manhattan Declaration.