Cutting the Legs Out from Under Religious Liberty
Written by Rhett Burns on May 3, 2017
Recent attacks on Christian florists, bakers, and pizza-pie makers opened the Church’s eyes to the threat against our religious liberties. By refusing to rise and applaud today’s favored sexual perversions, Christians risk heavy fines and business foreclosures. In response, many Christians have mounted an admirable defense of religious freedom, asserting that Christians must not be forced to violate their consciences to conduct business or otherwise engage in the public square. As far as they go, I give these defenders of freedom three cheers and an atta boy. But the secularist threat to religious liberty only grows more potent when Christians simultaneously cut out the legs from under religious liberty.
I mean this. Religious liberty is a fruit that grows on a certain type of tree, the type of tree one might be crucified on. That is, religious liberty is a Christian idea, a downstream benefit of the Gospel. It did not spring upon us from some value-neutral vacuum in colonial Virginia, but is our inheritance from the faith once delivered to the saints. It is Christianity that teaches that all men and women are created in the image of God, therefore possessing inherent dignity, worth, and the capacity to form beliefs. It is Christianity that forbids coercing faith, for we hold that only the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and righteousness. The Bible teaches the state’s power is limited, and it is Christians who promote the free marketplace of competing ideas. The risen Christ is not threatened by His rivals, therefore Christian citizens do not fear the fact of false religions. Look around at the countries most notorious for suppressing freedom of religion; you won’t find a nation in the lot where the Gospel has taken root deep in the culture. But where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
We have every confidence in the power of the Gospel to convert men and change nations; but faith comes by hearing, not by the magistrate’s sword. Still, the magistrate does in fact bear a sword and he does so for punishing evildoers. The existence of evildoers assumes a standard of good and evil, which brings us back to the question I raised last week about drawing ethical lines in society. According to what standard will the magistrate declare something evil? Says who? And given that some will commit actions in the name of a religion, by what authority will we restrict their religious exercise?
No one construes religious liberty to mean absolute freedom for all behaviors stemming from a religious worldview. Like all our liberties, religious liberty is limited; we are not anarchists. The heart of religious liberty, therefore, is the belief that the government may not coerce belief. But as we push out from this center, a nation must restrict some religious practices if any cohesive—or even safe—society is to emerge. For an outlandish example, it would do no good to grant ISIS religious liberty to establish their caliphate in New York City.
But which practices should be restricted and why? Beheading infidels is obviously beyond the line, wherever we happen to draw it, and, as David French pointed out in a recent National Review essay, our constitution has the means to withstand many threats, including Shariah Law. But in recent years other once obvious lines have been crossed. For example, the Constitution, as strong as it is, could not withstand the fanciful imagination of one Justice Anthony Kennedy, who created a constitutional right to same-sex marriage ex feelio—from feelings. So color me skeptical that the classical liberalism undergirding our current social order has the resources to withstand the repeated assaults from secularism and radical Islam.
We need something stronger to hold a civilization together. We need something unchanging, infallible, perfect. We need God’s Word. It is at this point that Christians give away the game when they adamantly refuse to assert the public good of a formally Christian society ordered according to the Scriptures. If we did that, someone might utter the word theocracy, and that might cause someone to break out in hives or go running for the safe spaces.
Too much evangelical political theology assumes a large cultural conference room table—smelling of rich mahogany, no doubt—to which all the various and sundry identity interest groups pull up a chair, their sincerely held beliefs tucked neatly into a manila folder labeled conscience. Christians demand a chair and the right to keep a folder, but speaketh not a peep when Demos sits at the head of the table and assumes the chairmanship. We play according to their rules, assuming the finality of religious pluralism. We assume a neutral public square that fairly adjudicates the various truth claims in a society. This is not just a poor strategic move, but a move into fairyland. Here in the real world, Demos doesn’t actually sit at the head of the table, but the table and the world belong to Jesus. He is the one who ascended to the right hand of the Father, and all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. No neutral realm exists whereby the nations of the world may operate independently from Jesus. We are either in submission to Christ or in rebellion.
There is a difference between not having a Christian society yet—or anymore—and not even wanting to build one. When we give up on the idea of building a distinctly Christian society, a nation discipled to obey Jesus in all the particulars of nationhood, we are actually giving up on religious liberty. We are excavating its foundation and writing the terms of our imprisonment. Religious pluralism, secularism, Islam, or any other organizing principle for society will not, indeed cannot, secure religious freedom for its citizens. Unbelief always manifests itself in either coercion or chaos. For neither Rousseau nor Muhammad rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven.