Baptists have historically championed the principles of religious liberty. Our Baptist fore-bearers—men like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus and John Leland—spoke directly to the governing authorities, appealing for religious liberty.
Years later, their courageous efforts influenced Thomas Jefferson to respond in a letter with the famous expression: “separation of church and state.” Jefferson’s expression was a summary of the rights guaranteed in the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In recent years that historic commitment to freedom has come under assault. In North Carolina, a U.S. Marine posted a motivational passage from Isaiah 54:17 near her office computer. The passage stated: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”
According to a military judge, the quotation “could be interpreted as combative… (and) could easily be seen as contrary to good order and discipline.” This Marine was later court-martialed, given a bad-conduct discharge, and denied military benefits, simply for posting a Bible verse.
In Atlanta, an evangelical Christian fire chief was suspended for writing and self-publishing a book professing his Christian beliefs, among them that homosexual behavior is wrong. He expressed shock and devastation, stating: “To actually lose my childhood-dream-come-true profession—where all of my expectations have been greatly exceeded—because of my faith is staggering…The very faith that led me to pursue my career has been used to take it from me.”
In Houston, subpoenas were issued ordering five Protestant pastors to turn over any sermons mentioning homosexuality, gender identity—and/or the mayor. Outraged by this city’s over-reaching, it is estimated that hundreds of clergy flooded the mayor’s office with their sermons. Shortly after the subpoenas were ordered, Russell Moore retorted on Twitter, “If I were a pastor in Houston this Sunday, I’d preach Matthew 14:1-12, and then send my sermon notes to City Hall, on a silver platter.”
There are numerous lesser-known cases as well. In her new book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and It’s Enemies, Mary Eberstadt comprises a list of those who suffered because of their religious convictions.
In 2015, the high school football coach suspended in Washington State for kneeling to say a prayer at the end of a game; the American military chaplains who claim to have been reassigned on account of their faithfulness to traditional Christianity; the small business owners working in the wedding industry at a time when vindictiveness in the name of the sexual revolution is apparently boundless; the Christian staffer at a day-care center who would not address a six-year-old boy as a girl and was fired on account of it; the teacher in New Jersey fired for giving a curious student a Bible; and related cases in which acting on religious convictions has been punished, at times vehemently. Eberstadt writes, “These are visible people living an invisible story.”
Americans are taking note, as Eberstadt writes, “People of faith are being publicly condemned and demonized by aggressive activists in an effort to drive them out of the public square and cripple the institutions they serve.”
This is happening simply for holding opposing views on crucial issues like birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage. As a result, Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others, are being driven together because of today’s cultural climate. Although we disagree theologically, nearly all religious faiths are being assaulted and see religious liberty threatened.
But this is not the first time people of different faiths have banded together for a worthy cause. It’s helpful to recall almost all major religions worked together for the heroic fights against Jim Crow. Without Catholic priests and nuns and laity, Baptist and other Protestant preachers, as well as large numbers of congregants, there would have been no civil rights movement—a truth to which Rosa Parks attributes.
This same “banding together” is taking place in newfound efforts for religious liberty. Succinctly put, religious liberty means that men and women are free to believe, and free to live out those beliefs.
Andrew Walker is exactly right, stating, “A person’s relationship with God is the most important relationship a person can have. It’s so important that no law or state should be able to interfere with a person’s relationship to God or his or her ability to live out his or her faith.”
Religious liberty is important because we believe that every person has been created by God and is accountable to Him. Thus, every person should have the freedom to worship according to his or her conscience. When people are free to worship, this sends a blatant reminder that there is One who rules and governs over all affairs, and our allegiance belongs to Him ultimately, not to the state.
Some opponents of religious liberty characterize “religious liberty” as a code word for bigotry. They warn that religious liberty is really a disguise for anti-gay and anti-discrimination, particularly towards “women’s health.” These advocates for civil liberty, ironically, diminish freedom at the expense of liberty itself.
There’s no doubt that our society has become increasing secularized and hostile. Those who are on “the wrong side of history” are noticeably out of step in today’s culture. There are people in our communities who see us as dangerous and oppressive because we believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and because we share our ultra-sound photos on Facebook and refuse to label our unborn daughter as a “fetus.”
Like so many on the receiving end of intolerance, some believe that Christianity is collapsing all around them. But what they’re witnessing is nominal Christianity collapsing, and—if you have eyes to see—leaving something in its place.
Russell Moore states, “As nominal Christianity disappears, what remains is a vibrant, gospel-focused, cross-preaching, evangelizing book-of-Acts Christianity. It’s this authentic Christian faith that looks so strange, ridiculous, and even repugnant in American culture.”
Every Christian who cares about religious liberty needs to ask the important question: What should I do? There’s a temptation to follow in the footsteps of men like Harry Emerson Fosdick. He believed reimagining and denying major doctrines that are central to the faith in order to keep up with modern times.
But if you study church history, you quickly realize what Russell Moore observes: “People who don’t want the Bible, don’t want half of the Bible either.” There’s a temptation to preach a generic gospel, knowing that we will be welcomed by virtually everyone in our community. But this almost-gospel doesn’t save and leads people on the broad road to hell. Instead, in the Spirit of the Apostles, let’s strive to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
A government should welcome religious diversity and allow various truth claims to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Yet, opponents of religious liberty seek to squelch all forms of speech they deem “hate-filled”—including passages of Scripture that expose their seared conscience. When we find ourselves up against those who often misunderstand us, may we remember to courageously proclaim: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). And, in order for us to continue having these Gospel conversations in the first place, let’s remember to pray for religious liberty.