Religious Liberty Is Important for All Americans


For more than three years now, I have had an unsettling fear that religious liberty in America is on the wane. Turns out, I am not alone. A movement is afoot among state legislatures across the country.  According to Baptist Press, there is a plan in place to have caucuses for religious freedom in every state legislature by the end of 2013.

This movement is significant because every American—including the atheist and the agnostic—will be less free without religious liberty. A look at the history and function of Religious Freedom in Americareligious liberty will demonstrate what I mean.

Historically, it is not arbitrary that Religious Liberty is our first liberty.  The First Amendment to the Constitution (which includes the freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and addressing grievances with our government) is anchored in the reality of religious liberty.  The freedom to speak and to call out injustice flows from the freedom to believe in reality beyond the governing authorities.  Religion is all about these greater realities.

Charles C. Haynes and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development have chronicled 29 influences religion had upon the founding of our nation. Their point is that without affirming religion, one cannot understand American history. Ours is a history founded on religious freedom for the individual.  Benjamin Rush (one of our “Founding Fathers”) speaks thus of our history of religious liberty,

The only foundation for a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. Benjamin Rush Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, 1798.

As important as religious liberty is to our history, it is even more important to our functioning as Americans.  We have all likely heard of the “rugged individualism” which forged a nation from the frozen streams of northern winters to the barren plains and western deserts.  America has been a remarkable experience of entrepreneurs and innovation. From the telephone to the iPhone, America has always sought to excel—each generation outdoing the past in an ever-upward pursuit.  But such individual-inspired accomplishments are not possible without liberty. And liberty is not possible without religious liberty. Here are two reasons religious liberty benefits all Americans (not just Christians).

First, religious liberty empowers individuals.  It is born of the spirit of Luther—a spirit in which one man can stand against his government and against the world on the basis of truth as dictated by his own conscience. One man—through principled conviction (like Martin Luther King) or through the flourish of individual creativity (like Alexander Graham Bell)—one man can change the world. That is the spirit of America grounded in the spirit of religious liberty.  One man following the dictates of his conscience can call all men to a greater tomorrow if he is free. For him to be free, he must be free to obey first his own conscience and not some government mandate or tyrannical dictate.

Second, religious liberty begets excellence. The reason religious liberty is fundamental is that it frees the individual to call the government (and all citizens) to a higher standard of justice and liberty for all. On what grounds would an individual need redress of his grievances with his government except on the grounds of injustice? Such redress means that justice itself is a higher reality than the government. If men are free to believe in God, they are free to call others to a more excellent reality than that which the government prescribes. While the government must enforce basic laws and rules, the government is not the final authority on the highest truths and greatest impulses of America’s citizenry.

Religious freedom liberty America religionEach individual should be free to explore and create and call others to greater truths.  If, instead, the government is able to define reality for its citizens, then freedom in any meaningful sense is lost. The individual becomes free only in the sense that he is free to choose between government-mandated options.  That’s not First Amendment freedom; that’s a Third World loss of freedom—like the freedom of Chinese families who can choose to have a boy or a girl (but not both).

Sadly, government mandates are trumping individual freedom of religion in the Obama administration.  More and more, religion is welcomed less and less. The HHS mandate in Obamacare is exactly the opposite of religious freedom.

Obamacare mandates—against the religious conscience—that employers must provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs.  The freedom of religion that the Obama administration has in view is a freedom restricted to the gathered congregation on Sunday morning—not the freedom of religion necessary for individuals to flourish—not First Amendment freedom.

It may seem to some that the HHS mandate concerning “contraception” for women is just a “Catholic” issue or a “Christian” issue, but it is not. When Christians, Muslims, and Jews are forced as individuals to provide for abortions against their faith and their own consciences, they are being asked to rob America of excellence—to stop calling America to higher truth. In effect, they—we—are being asked to just shut up and do what Uncle Sam says.  And that is neither free nor good.

Christians will likely face intensifying persecution, but all Americans will lose. America will be smaller when religion—especially Christian religion—is muzzled. Don’t take it from me. Listen  to another of the early Americans,

Without morals, a republic cannot subsist any length of time, they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.” Charles Carroll to James McHenry November 4, 1800.

Preachers and Politics, What do you think?


Last week, I asked if preachers ought to pick a fight with the IRS. Today, I want to revisit the issue and ask for morepreachers irs pulpit freedom feedback. I have linked here an article from Baptist Press, which explains why an overwhelming majority of pastors support the IRS code forbidding pastors from endorsing candidates for political office. As the chart to the right shows, a whopping 87% of pastors surveyed think pastors should not endorse political candidates.

However, a small (but growing) number of pastors are challenging that thinking.  Sunday, October 7, 2012, has been declared “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”  Below is a video from Jim Garlow of Skyline Church, speaking about why he is leading the charge to free pulpits from the IRS muzzle-code.

For my part, I am torn between freedom and wisdom. On the one hand, I am with the 87% who think pastors should not endorse candidates from the pulpit. Pastors have such a limited window that for the sake of maximum impact they ought to stick to the gospel and focus their energies on clearly proclaiming the penal substitutionary atonement of our Lord Jesus.

Yet, the point Garlow makes in this video is undeniable. The IRS code functions like the nose of a camel. If the nose is allowed in the tent, it won’t be long before the camel overruns the tent.  The most pressing moral issues of our day are inherently political issues (abortion, gay marriage).  The IRS code does more than place endorsements off-limit; it also could be interpreted to forbid speaking against party platforms of candidates–even if party platforms call for abortion on demand and the dissolution of traditional marriage.

Where is the line between a free pulpit and a muzzled pulpit? Congress shall make no law restricting the free exercise of religion, according to the Constitution. Even more important, pastors are called to obey God rather than men and to preach the Word in season and out of season. It’s too simple to think that preaching means only calling sinners to be saved.  John the Baptist preached against Herod’s infidelity (Luke 3); Paul called civil magistrates to account when they failed to follow Roman law (Acts 16:39ff); and Peter with the rest of the Apostles were beaten and ordered not to speak any more in the name of Jesus, but they “never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:42).

There is a very long history in the Christian faith of running afoul of governing authorities. Though I have no desire to endorse a candidate from the pulpit, I am not sure I want the government to have the power to tell me that I cannot do that. I should be free to persuade Christians to cling to everything that is good (like marriage) and to abhor everything that is evil (like abortion on demand), right?