Every Christian needs to be able to explain what religious liberty is and why it’s important.
It’s ironic that this country traces its origins to people seeking a place for religious freedom and fleeing governments that dictated how they could practice their religious convictions. It’s ironic because we’re at a place in U.S. history where religious liberty is being redefined and isn’t valued, despite being the first freedom protected in our Constitution.
It’s being redefined as freedom to worship and believe what we wish, but not to live out those convictions in the public square, in our daily lives. That’s a radical redefinition because the fundamental principle of religion is finding what’s true about the world, and that informs our significance and guides how we live. Relativism and a new definition of pluralism have led many to believe that religion is a personal preference like ice cream flavors, but most religious traditions make truth claims about the world and therefore have implications for how followers live their lives. These become binding on our consciences. Thus, freedom of conscience and association have flowed directly from religious freedom because our lives are guided by our religious convictions.
We need to be able to explain what religious freedom is and why it’s important because many people no longer have any idea. As secularism in the West grows, many people don’t even know religious people. Their views of religion are shaped by the media, and in many cases, extreme and offensive examples. Many people don’t know what it looks like to see a Christian or other religious person live out their convictions; they have only caricatures. So we need to start from the beginning and explain what we believe is true and why we live it out. And for many Christians, they need to begin by understanding that, too.
I’ve written mostly about “religion” and not Christianity because religious freedom is a general freedom, not just a privilege for Christians. To protect our own religious freedom as Christians, we need to protect the general freedom of other religions, too. This is an American freedom, not a Christian freedom. While Christianity was the majority religion when our country was founded and obviously in view when the Bill of Rights was adopted, there were already citizens who followed other religions, and that’s always been the case. Religious freedom is a shared value, and we cannot plead special privileges for our own religion or it weakens the freedom for others and our own freedom.
The Founders added the Bill of Rights and made freedom of religion and expression the first item on the list because they knew that a government that could deny those two fundamental freedoms was a government that could deny any other freedom. Every citizen, religious or secular, should value that freedom.
Most people understand the value of freedom of expression as expressed in art, even if the art is offensive. Most people would easily see the problem with government restricting an artist from expressing their own views in their art, or with compelling them to create certain kinds of art. This may not be the exact comparison to religious freedom, but I bring it up to illustrate the point that a government who can deny religious freedom can deny another kind of freedom. There’s a close kinship in the freedoms protected in the First Amendment. It’s not only the interests of religious people at stake here. The expansion and empowering of government to violate one right empowers the government to violate further rights, including violating the right to have no religious conviction or practice.
Preventing religious people from exercising their convictions in the public square is a violation just as is forcing people to take a religious vow. The First Amendment protects both sides of that coin - that government should make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and no establishment of religion. It’s the same right.
So what about religious freedom in the public square? There have been a variety of legal cases in recent years where Christians in business have been penalized for applying their religious convictions in their businesses. Specifically, Christians who have moral and religious objections to same-sex marriage have declined to provide their services for those events. And the justification of the governments who have taken action against them is that they are unjustly discriminating against gay people. In every case, these business people served customers who were gay; it was only when asked to provide their service for a wedding that they objected. They didn’t discriminate against people, they discriminated against an event because it violated their conscience informed by their religion.
In U.S. jurisprudence, the courts have attempted to balance competing interests with religious freedom. The approach has historically been to place as little burden on the person with religious convictions as possible while ensuring the interests of the other party. The rationale for trying to compel these business owners to provide their services for same-sex weddings is based on the comparison of race and sexual orientation. Racial discrimination was widespread and recalcitrant. African-Americans weren’t denied services here and there, but overall. There was no baker, florist, or photographer who would serve them. Because African-Americans could not get services, the government had a duty to compel businesses to serve them. (I’ll note that the overwhelming rationale for discriminating against African-Americans was not religious, even though some abused the Bible and their religion to justify their racism. In these cases of desegregation, the government wasn’t overriding religious liberty, but plain, stark racism.)
There’s no comparison in the cases of Christian business owners not wanting to provide services for a same-sex wedding. First, these business owners have refused services for an event, not to individuals - those individuals were previously served by these same Christian business owners. Second, the services are easily obtained from other businesses; there’s no widespread denial of service to gays or same-sex weddings. Since, historically, the government has not restricted the practice of one’s religious conscience in the public square when the interests of the other party could still be served, there’s no comparison to racism and Jim Crow, and there’s no good justification for government compelling business owners to violate their consciences in the practice of their business.
So far the cases in the news have been about Christian business owners, but it’s not just Christians who have an interest in this. Mormons, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews all share similar religious convictions about marriage. It’s not special pleading for Christians, but an interest in the rights of all religious business owners.
The government is attempting to compel religious people to violate their conscience and denying them the religious freedom to live out their convictions in the public square in other ways. There are attempts to force Catholic hospitals and pro-life doctors to perform abortions. There are attempts to force nuns and businesses to provide insurance that covers abortions. Christian schools that have a statement of faith and ethics standard are being coerced by government to drop those distinctives and be like every other public institution.
Religious people aren’t just cherry-picking their rights claims, singling out same-sex weddings. They’re seeking to live out their convictions, and the changing values of our society are infringing on their rights. These aren’t new beliefs that believers are conjuring up; they are widely held principles going back centuries. And the historical understanding of religious freedom is being challenged in the courts to restrict, limit, and compel people to violate their consciences.
As we explain to others the importance of our religious convictions and religious freedom, share the Gospel. After all, the reason Christians (and other religious people) have the freedom to live out their convictions is because they think they’re true. Not just true for us, but true about the world. We want to persuade, not force, others to share our convictions because the answers matter and are of ultimate significance.
Two good articles to read on this topic and begin honing your ability to explain and defend your religious liberty:
- The Continuing Threat to Religious Liberty by Ryan T. Anderson
- Opposite Sides of Cultural War Meet to Debate Religious Liberty and Discrimination: Here Is What They Said by Christine Roe