Embattled on All Sides, Does Religious Liberty Have a Future?

Published March 25, 2021

The Gospel Coalition

Back in the 1990s, religious liberty possessed nearly bipartisan consensus on its importance in American life. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act—now under question in the latest version of the Equality Act—passed in 1993 with overwhelming support and even sponsored by Democratic figureheads Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy. The idea of prominent Democrats lending their support for religious liberty today is simply unheard of. On the Left, the consensus holds that religious liberty gives room to bigotry and poses the final obstacle to the untrammeled success of the sexual revolution and the Imperial Self.

But a new challenge has also arisen among more traditionally conservative avenues. As American culture secularizes at breakneck pace, it’s common to see figures on the right side of the spectrum question whether a laissez-faire approach to religion isn’t partly responsible for the fragmenting of American culture. This argument says America is defined by its founding era’s association with the Christian worldview. The country didn’t arise out of a vacuum, and its unique governing vision is a result of its Christian influence. If America ceases to be Christian, it ceases to be America.

What are Christians to make of this argument?

Institutions Are Essential

There is an element of truth here. I don’t believe nations emerge out of a vacuum. Ideas are enmeshed in cultural ecosystems. If America is stretched beyond its limits, it runs the risk of rejecting the constraints that made its propositional ideals possible. As the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, reflecting on America’s uniquely religious landscape, “Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.”

What I think Tocqueville means is that mediating institutions (family, church, or any voluntary association) must stand as meaning-giving buffers between an all-consuming libertarianism and an all-consuming state. Liberty’s loss is on the horizon when a society stresses only individual meaning or government enacting a utopian vision. Pope Benedict XVI warned against “the dictatorship of relativism.”

Societies need authorities that anchor their foundations beyond mere convention, raw majoritarianism, expressive individualism, and state totalitarianism. That’s where a specific type of religion comes in. It should not strive for utopias. And it should allow for error, within reason, as established by governing bodies.

Challenges from the Left

The challenge is knowing how to use freedoms nobly and virtuously. As Tocqueville said, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”

Stresses owing to the human condition (whether autonomy or oppression) mean that both the Left and the Right eventually challenge religious liberty.

On the Left, challenges are born not only of sexualized identity politics, but general discomfort with the essence of religion. In 2017, religious scholar Reza Aslan hosted a program on CNN looking at religion and spirituality. He said in a promotional video:

Faith is mysterious. It’s indescribable. And religion is just a language you use to describe your faith. Although we’re all speaking different languages, we’re all saying pretty much the same thing. Religion is about who you are, how you see yourself, your world; that’s what it means to say “I am Christian,” “I am Muslim,” “I am Jewish,” “I am Buddhist,” “I am Hindu.” These are far more statements of identity than they are statements of faith.

This is a deeply troubling way of understanding religion, and explains why some may be skeptical of religious liberty. Not only is it another example of subjugating the transcendent to the personal through identity politics, but it also fundamentally misses the stark differences between religions.

If framed wrongly, religious liberty can easily be confused with a relativist pluralism. In this model, religion is a matter of preference among options that no one can say is true. If religious liberty is concerned with downplaying differences and treating claims of various religions as essentially equal, no wonder some would show caution.

Challenges from the Right

But a similar claim can be found on the Right. This suspicion says supporting the freedom of other religions, or basic viewpoint neutrality, is to invite immorality and idolatry to roam unchecked. To be sure, not all viewpoints are equal. I think there are legitimate ways to curtail obscenity in accordance with the Constitution. But the contest we wage is figuring out how to protect the liberty we enjoy without denying it to others. Leo Strauss referred to the struggle “to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license.”

But what of the charge that religious liberty gives space for idolatry to run rampant? On the surface, it has merit. After all, Scripture tells us to flee idolatry, and making room for idolatry to flourish seems incompatible with the New Testament message of Jesus as Lord. Should Christians defend the rights of others to persist in their sin and idolatry? Does religious liberty mean Christians want to see Islam enjoy greater success and gain more converts?

To answer this, we must ask why defending liberty in general is worthwhile. We defend liberty not to protect people’s right to sin, but to protect their ability to live in accordance with their grasp of truth. This doesn’t mean what a person believes is necessarily true, but that the person making a sincere religious claim strives to comprehend truth as best as possible.

To protect the properly ordered use of a good, we make allowances for its misuse. Imagine a society in which every sin was a crime. Outlawing all sin or banning the misuse of something can endanger the architecture of liberty and create an invasive, burdensome, and stifling political society. To protect Christianity, should we really treat non-Christians as lesser citizens or stigmatize religious belief? Of course not. To think Christianity needs legal protections not afforded to other religions is to betray our confidence in the gospel (Rom. 1:16). The gospel, not government, is the power of God unto salvation.

This speaks to a fundamental confusion surrounding religious liberty. Religious liberty isn’t about defending the right to idolatry; it’s about defending the cognitive faculties that can grasp religious truth. To allow for people to come to a saving knowledge of faith in Jesus Christ, we must leave room for people to believe error. Religious liberty, then, isn’t about defending the merits of a different religion or equivocating on the differences.

Moreover, no one argues that individuals have an ultimate theological right to idolatry before God. God does not respect idolatry. And in the fullness of time, all idolatry will be judged. Rather, individuals have a penultimate political right to be uncoerced in their grasp and exercise of their religious faculties. To allow for people to come to a saving knowledge of faith in Jesus Christ authentically, society will have to leave room for people to believe erringly.

Religious liberty recognizes a simple truth: I can’t grasp religious claims for others. Because I can’t convert others by proxy, everyone must reach individual conclusions on who God is—which entails giving space for people to believe error. To protect the true exercise of liberty, we give space for others to believe wrongly. We hope as well that this liberty will give them a pathway to believe the truth.

We shouldn’t fight to defend the merits of anyone’s idolatry, whether born of identity politics or false religion. I want everyone to reach a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. I’m fighting to defend a context in which communicating Christian truths is not treated with hostility. This way, people can grasp these truths for themselves and live honestly in accordance with the dictates of the gospel.

Our society affirms it’s right and good to be treated equally before the law. We must extend the same freedom to all Americans. We may not like that other religions are given equal access to the public square, but the opposite reality would prove untenable: a society in which all religions are treated with second-class contempt.

Affirming a shared legal status that allows for all to live faithfully with their conscience—even if in error—is not to defend the merits of another religion. Nor is it willing the advance of a particular religion. It is accepting that for the gospel to be proclaimed, it will have to do so without subsidy from the state. This is as it should be, as I write in Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age.

Realism in a Fallen World

America need not be exhaustively Christian to be America, but neither can it be wholly secular. Embracing this paradox means defending the religious liberty of all faiths. We have to understand, biblically speaking, that governing authorities mustn’t have the power of the sword over religious matters.

The legitimacy of a common social order isn’t tied to the social order uniting around the same religion. God has given us creational orders and natural law to make society habitable. Scripture witnesses to the intelligibility of creation and reason as self-attesting witnesses to God’s authority in the structure and design of the world, which necessarily includes the moral law (Ps. 19:1–3Rom. 1:32; 2:15).

When we run afoul of these, of course society will endanger itself. But the alternate reality—in which we marginalize or coerce some and banish others—is not in keeping with a New Testament pattern of statecraft or soteriology. Of course, it would be desirable and ideal for society to be composed of regenerate Christians. But that’s not a reality we’re told is possible apart from Christ bringing his kingdom in full.

Religious liberty mustn’t fall victim to hyper-individualism, relativism, or over-realized hegemony. Behind these are anthropological, epistemological, and eschatological errors of assumption—that humanity is defined by desire, skepticism, and power. The allure of moral, religious, and cultural uniformity mustn’t come at the expense of religious freedom.

A baseline of religious liberty is thus essential. Unless all religions receive equal recognition under the law, one religious group will set whatever exacting standards it desires as the basis of societal membership and participation. Whether Catholic versus Protestant, Protestant versus other Protestant, atheist versus evangelical, one group is always tempted to exclude based on some religious or viewpoint criteria.

One thing can be sure: societies are inherently dynamic and majorities often change. The challenge is to preserve a constitutional structure that assumes these dynamics, and that perpetually retrieves their value in each age in order to secure liberty and justice for all.

Andrew T. Walker is associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is author of the forthcoming volume Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age (Brazos Press, 2021). You can connect with him on Twitter.

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