Redefining Religious Liberty

“Religious liberty” has become a popular phrase in the last several years. Its popularity has been largely due to political rhetoric coming from conservative evangelical leaders and politicians, specifically in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage. The phrase “religious liberty” has taken on a new meaning: having the religious conviction to be able to refuse business or service to certain people without being penalized. Regardless of your perspective on same-sex marriage, I want you to consider with me how true religious liberty actually has a richer meaning than the definition it has taken over the last several years. It has less to do with protecting ourselves and more to do with loving the other.

We were a nation founded on the principles of religious liberty. While not every colonial British province had religious liberty in America, the formation of the United States would promise liberty for all. This was revolutionary for a world that was accustomed to state-controlled churches. We can thank the early Pennsylvanians for setting the precedent on this issue.[1] Despite being a nation founded on religious liberty, our ancestors have discriminated against people based on their own religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of the discriminated persons. This list includes, but is not limited to: African Americans, Asians, Catholics, Jews, Latinos, the LGBT community, Mormons, Muslims, Native Americans, women, etc.

In 1785, James Madison penned the document Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. In it he argues why religion has no place in government, specifically in response to a Virginia document called A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion. In one of Madison’s fifteen points regarding the bill, he states his opposition:

“Because it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy.”[2]

Unfortunately, religious disagreement has brought bloodshed. I believe that religious liberty is less about protection and more about tolerance. I recognize that “tolerance” is a very controversial word. However, tolerance is not the same as acceptance. Religious liberty promises that the government will tolerate all people—even the ones who are intolerant. Furthermore, it promises that it will protect those who are the recipients of intolerance.

There was a time in our nation’s history when interracial marriage was seen as nonbiblical by large numbers of Christians. Unfortunately, there are still people who believe this. Based on the constitution, one had the legal right to discriminate against a couple for being interracial—laws in the Deep South even made their marriage illegal. In 1967 after decades of persecution, the Supreme Court ruled bans on interracial marriage to be unconstitutional.[3] This is the reminder that at one person’s liberty often comes another person’s enslavement. The laws making interracial marriage illegal restricted people who were deeply in love.

This is where we have a divide between what is legal and what is Christlike. Legally, we can do a lot of things that do not reflect the gospel. When Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees about the issue of divorce, he calls people to consider the truth behind the Law of Moses.

“They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’” — Matthew 19:7–9, NRSV

Jesus reminds us that the Law of Moses calls us to one reality, while God’s love calls us to another—a love that was present in the Law, but was often lost due to human interpretation. The Law of Moses is different than American law, but we can draw parallels between two systems that are based on what one should not do versus the love, grace, and liberty offered through the New Covenant. This liberty is not lawlessness or disregard, but a love so divine that it calls us to a greater way of life. True religious liberty starts with us learning to embrace the other. In the Gospel of John, Jesus has a startling interaction with a Samaritan woman. He says:

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” — John 4:23

We rarely think about the repercussions of this statement, but it was profound. Jesus was indicating that the Jews and Samaritans—divided by religious differences for centuries—were both being invited into a new understanding of worship.

In 1779 Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia document A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom:

“Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone…”[4]

While I disagree with many of Jefferson’s theological ideas, I respect that he recognized that religious perspectives should not be coerced on people using the law.

I continuously wrestle with the balance between religious freedom and religious conviction. On one hand, it is important to hold to one’s religious conviction, but on the other hand it is equally important to protect the liberties and rights of all people. I am convinced that the church’s witness to the world is diminished when we hold our fists closed tightly. As an American, one has the right to discriminate against people with which he or she does not agree. But as a Christian, one has the responsibility to show love toward everyone, especially the people with which he or she does not agree. James reminds us:

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” — James 4:8–10

I recognize that some readers might find pause with my reflections. However, I invite you to ponder these ideas. Reflect on them. Disagree with me. But I am convinced that religious liberty has less to do with defending our rights and more to do with loving the other. The law of religious liberty allows one to discriminate or defend, but the call of God is to love.


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