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How Do We Make a Case for Religious Freedom?
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How Do We Make a Case for Religious Freedom?

Posted February 22, 2017 by Sean McDowell

How Do We Make a Case for Religious Freedom?

SeanMcDowell.org

Given the stunning ruling last week against Barronelle Stutzman, the 72-year old grandma who was sued for running her business according to her deepest moral and religious convictions, it is more critical than ever for Christians to be ready to make a defense for religious freedom. The following essay comes from my recent book A New Kind of Apologist, and is written by James Tonkowich. This article is longer than a typical blog, but please take the time to read it carefully and help spread the word. Christians simply must be able to make a case for religious liberty today.

An Apologetic for Religious Liberty

Fifty years ago, no one would be writing a chapter in a book on apologetics about how to defend religious freedom in America. Religious freedom was rightly regarded as our birthright—our birthright as human beings and our birthright as American citizens. But in fifty years, the landscape has changed dramatically.

Today politicians, activists, the media, and federal courts denigrate religious conviction as nothing more than “irrational” prejudice springing from “animus” toward those with whom religious people disagree.[1] Why then should people be free to hate? The United States Justice Department in Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued before the Supreme Court that churches and religious organizations should not have the freedom to make hiring decisions based on their internal religious criteria. And a New Mexico Supreme Court justice commented on a ruling against Christian defendants that compromising “the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives” is necessary as “the price of citizenship.”[2]

In 21st century America, if we do not defend religious freedom—ours and everyone else’s—we are in danger of losing it altogether and along with it every other freedom we hold dear.

Religious Freedom and Human Nature

This is an apologetic to defend religious freedom or, if you wish, religious liberty. That would be obvious except that the soft and slippery phrases “religious toleration” and “freedom of worship” have crept into political, media, and popular speech. The claim is that religious freedom, religious toleration, and freedom of worship, all mean the same thing—but nothing could be further from the truth.

Let us look at true religious freedom and then we can consider the counterfeits.

In the face of persecution early in the third century AD, the great Christian apologist, Tertullian (AD 160-220), wrote a letter to Scapula, the Roman proconsul at Carthage in North Africa. In his letter, Tertullian presented a new idea in a world of state mandated religious conformity and coercion. He argued for religious freedom based upon intrinsic human rights. Tertullian wrote “[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions.”[3] And therein lies the heart of religious freedom, which separates it from religious toleration or freedom of worship.

Religious freedom is a human birthright. Everyone on the globe is entitled to religious freedom simply by having been born. Governments, if they are just, will recognize that birthright.

From a Christian point of view, we were created in the image of God with freedom. Adam and Eve were faced with a choice to believe God and abstain from eating from the forbidden tree or to believe the serpent and disobey God. In the wake of their bad judgment, we are free to believe or not believe, live in accordance with God’s truth or flaunt it, and we, like Adam and Eve, will be held accountable for the choices we have freely made.

As Christians then, it is our duty to extend to others the freedom God extends to us. God does not coerce us into belief and we have no right to coerce each other. That is, all people have a right to religious freedom and, since every right has a corresponding obligation, everyone an obligation to grant religious freedom to everyone else.

Having said that, you don’t have to be a Christian to believe in religious freedom. Men and women with no religious convictions, vague religious convictions, and assorted faiths all believe that we have a right to our own minds and our own consciences. People on the political right yell just as loudly as those on the left when they feel someone is unjustly trying to “impose” their way of thinking or their morality on the rest of us.

The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag may be a relic from the American Revolution, but the sentiment is still alive and well today. We hunger for freedom and freedom begins with freedom over our own inner life, that is, with religious freedom.

The American Founders including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison understood this. They read Tertullian and fully agreed with him. Madison wrote, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”[4]

You and I are the only ones able to decide what we will believe and we are answerable to God. Since the Creator and Ruler of the universe has a claim on us, Madison went on, that claim “is precedent, both in time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” And if religion is beyond the claims of civil society, “still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body.”

This was the thinking behind the religious freedom provision in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Religious freedom includes the right to believe as you wish, live according to your beliefs, raise your family according to your beliefs, petition the government according to your beliefs, evangelize, and convert from one faith to another and all without government interference. Is that because of the First Amendment? No. It is because religious freedom is our birthright as human beings. The First Amendment simply forbids the government from robbing us of that inalienable birthright.

Counterfeit Religious Freedom

Religious toleration in marked contrast is not the gift of God given to us by birthright. Religious toleration is the gift of the government extended or taken away based on political expediency and the desire of the state to manage religion and religious believers. As Becket Fund founder Kevin Seamus Hasson put it in his book The Right To Be Wrong:

The authority to choose to tolerate presumes the authority not to tolerate. Any government that thinks it is being generous, or shrewd, or pragmatic to put up with dissent faiths necessarily believes it has the power to persecute them if circumstances change. Tolerance, in short, is just a policy choice of the gov­ernment, not a right of the people. And policy choices can be reversed.[5]

Religious toleration recognizes no inalienable rights and put everyone’s inner life—believers as well as unbelievers—in the hands of the government. In short, it forces us to render unto Caesar the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21).

We can see the difference early in the history of the United States. While the Constitution did not allow Congress to create a “Church of the United States,” the individual states could and many did have state churches. Dissenters were tolerated, not free.

In Connecticut the state church was the Congregational Church. Because of that Connecticut forced Baptists and others to pay taxes to support Congregational churches and clergy. Dissenters were fined for not attending Congregational churches on Sundays. And while their worship was tolerated, they were often denied the use of meetinghouses and their clergy were often denied the ability to per­form legally binding weddings.

“[W]hat religious privileges we enjoy,” the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut wrote to then President Thomas Jefferson in 1800, “we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.” Religious toleration is, in short, degrading and most assuredly not the same as religious freedom.

“Freedom of worship” is a restrictive type of religious toleration. Freedom of worship is the government’s permission to engage privately in certain god-oriented free-time activities. You may study the Bible, go to church, pray, say the Rosary, and discuss amongst yourselves all you’d like just as long as you do it in private. Keep it behind the church walls or inside your home, but don’t bring your religion out in public.

On a practical level this means no evangelism, no asserting religious-based ideas in the public square, no forming campus organizations based on religious convictions, and no running your business based on your religious faith. Such compromising of our faith is, we’re increasingly told, “the price of citizenship.”

Religious Freedom and All Freedoms

Yet most of us still believe that freedom rather than servitude marks true citizenship as it marks true humanity. With that in mind, understand that abridging religious freedom by sneaking in language about religious toleration or freedom of worship destroys not just religious freedom, but all of our freedoms since without religious freedom, all the rest are a sham.

The same First Amendment that first and foremost guarantees religious freedom also guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government for change. To that list we can add economic freedom, freedom to choose our friends and associates, and the freedom to make a myriad of other legitimate choices.

Consider: What if you are grated “freedom of speech,” yet are not permitted to articulate your most deeply held religious beliefs? You could talk about sports, the weather, celebrities, and TV shows, but not about the ideas that inspire and motivate your life. That kind of “freedom of speech” would be hollow and meaningless.

Freedom of assembly is not free if you cannot assemble over the truths that are most dear to you. Freedom to petition the government does us no good if we can only petition the government for things that have nothing to do with our faith. Traffic laws or banking regulations might be okay topics for petition, but not issues of life or marriage or war or the poor since our advocacy may be the result of our religious convictions.

So it goes with all our freedoms. Take away the right to make up our own minds about matters relating to life, morality, and God and what is left is servitude, not freedom. If the government can control our thoughts, convictions, and consciences, we are in bondage of the worst sort and living in bondage is contrary to the gift of freedom that goes with our human nature.

Yes, but…

Many have objected that religious freedom is simply an excuse for just about any behavior. Certainly this has been part of the argument against religious freedom in the recent debates about gender, sexuality, marriage, abortion, contraception, and healthcare. Religious freedom, we are told, is simply a pretext for evil forms of discrimination.

First, none of our freedoms are absolute including religious freedom. Just as freedom of speech does not include yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, so freedom of religion has limits. In fact, the history of religious freedom in America is the history of trying to define those limits—a history we continue to write today.

Thus, to use an easy example, the government should prevent someone bent on restoring ancient Aztec religion from initiating human sacrifices. Fine, but what about animal sacrifices in suburban neighborhoods? In Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah, Florida, the Supreme Court decided for the animal sacrificing church. What about the use of drugs in religious rituals? The Supreme Court found against religious worshipers who used peyote in Employment Division v. Smith. In response, however, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993.

RFRA affirms the central importance of upholding religious freedom. To do that it stipulates a four-part criterion before the government can infringe on religious freedom. First, the religious belief that inspires the practice in question must be sincerely held. Second, the government, as a rule, may not substantially burden the free exercise of religion. Third, the government may infringe on religious freedom only if there is a compelling government interest in limiting religious practice. And finally, the government is required to use the least restrictive means of realizing its compelling interest, that is, it must tread as lightly as possible.

That is because, as Tertullian wrote to Scapula, “one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man.” Or to quote what Jefferson wrote acknowledging Tertullian, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Thus, even in our law, individual religious freedom comes first and we insist that the government prove that religious freedom must be restricted before it proceeds.

Another objection to religious freedom is that it causes conflicts. John Shattuck who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under President Clinton made this argument at a 2002 human rights conference at Harvard University. Shattuck said, “Freedom of religion is predicated upon the existence of more than one religion. But a multiplicity of religions has always meant conflict, and religious conflict often led to war and human devastation. This was the state of reality for centuries and millennia, and it is hardly a ringing endorsement of religious freedom.”[6]

This idea that religious freedom causes conflict, however, has been completely discredited. Looking at the history of religious freedom and religious oppression, scholars Monica Duffy Toff, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah conclude in their book God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics that governments that do not extend religious freedom to their citizens “encourage pathological forms of religious politics, including religion-based terrorism and religion-related civil wars.”[7] That is, religious coercion breeds radicalism, conflict, and violence while religious liberty contributes to civil tranquility.

This would in no way have surprised the American Founders who included religious freedom in the Constitution for the sake of “domestic tranquility” in the new republic.

Finally, there are those who object that all this talk about defending religious freedom is simply a way for Christians to impose their way of thinking on everyone else. If that is the reason some Christians defend religious freedom these days, they are dishonest examples of what they advocate.

Religious freedom is about freedom for everyone: religious believers of any and all sorts as well as those who have no religious beliefs. The most important religious freedom to protect is not the freedom of the majority, but the freedom of minority religions, unpopular religions, and religions that challenge conventional ideas. To use an example cited earlier, in 1800, the established Congregationalists in Connecticut did not need anyone to protect their religious freedom. It was the despised Baptists who needed protection. Today the law needs to protect Muslim women denied jobs in retail for wearing headscarves,[8] Sheik children wearing ceremonial daggers to school,[9] or Catholic midwives who refuse to participate in abortions.[10] Religious voices that echo the values and priorities of the prevailing culture need no protection, it is those who stand against “what everyone thinks” and force everyone to think again.

As for the defense of religious liberty, this has been, through most of history, the role of Christians. And we Christians have not choice but to take up that role once again.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.


[1] See United States v. Windsor in which the Supreme Court struck down the federal definition of marriage as one man and one woman in the 1993 Defense of Marriage Act because they felt that the Congress that passed it (85-14 in the Senate, 342-67 in the House) and then-President Bill Clinton were motivated “by an improper animus or purpose” in order “to disparage and to injure,” to “demean” to “impose inequity,” and to “humiliat[e]” the children of same-sex couples.

[2] See Albert Mohler, “’It is the Price of Citizenship’? An Elegy for Religious Liberty in America,” at Christianity.com, (http://www.christianity.com/christian-life/political-and-social-issues/it-is-the-price-of-citizenship-an-elegy-for-religious-liberty-america.html?p=0).”

[3] Tertullian, “To Scapula,” Chapter 2

[4] James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment (1785).

[5] Kevin Seamus Hasson, The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005), 57.

[6] Quoted in William L. Sauders, “The First Freedom, Touchstone, April 2008.

[7] Monica Duffy Toff, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 220.

[8] Richard Wolf, “Muslim’s case takes ‘look’ at Abercrombie & Fitch Policy,” USA Today, February 24, 2015, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/02/...

[9] Eric Wilkenson, “Student Allowed to Bring Religious Knife to Class,” King5, October 23, 2014, http://www.king5.com/story/news/local/2014/10/22/s...

[10] Russ Jones, “Court Will Decide if Catholic Midwives Can Refuse to Perform Abortions,” ChristianHeadlines.com, November 12, 2014, http://www.christianheadlines.com/blog/court-to-decide-if-catholic-midwives-can-refuse-to-perform-abortions.html (N.B. This case is in the United Kingdom.)


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