Why everyone (religious or not) should advocate for Religious Liberty.

I have found that one of the most misunderstood topics today is religious liberty. We have groups of people who place the word “religious liberty” in scare quotes as if religious liberty is not the cornerstone to authentic freedom and no longer has value in society, while other groups believe that religious liberty exclusively extends only to those with a specific set of beliefs . Both of these thoughts are perilous. There are countless books devoted to religious liberty that can provide an excellent historical and philosophical framework to the subject. For the sake of time and energy, I wish only to briefly discuss what religious liberty is and to present the dangers of society abandoning religious liberty (state established religion/worldview).

What is religious liberty?

John Leland, who was a prominent Baptist minister and ardent advocate for religious liberty during the late 1700's(read more of his story here), is one of the most influential figures I have studied on the subject of religious liberty. Leland writes on the subject of one’s conscience that:

..every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let men be free.

Leland also writes:

A man’s mind should be always open to conviction, and an honest man will receive that doctrine which appears the best demonstrated; and what is more common than for the best of men to change their minds

Finally, Leland asserts:

Religion is a matter between God and individuals, religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government nor any ways under its control.

I hope that these thoughts from a man who endured persecution because of his faith at the hands of state established churches in Massachusetts and Virginia will help provide a foundation for understanding religious liberty. In essence, religious liberty is the understanding that:

  1. All men have the right to pursue truth on the subject of God and live in harmony with the truth in which they arrive.
  2. Authentic faith and conviction can not be coerced.
  3. The government is not designed nor qualified to determine truths about God.

What is the opposite of religious liberty?

It only takes a brief review of history to realize that the state has attempted to play the role of God for centuries, causing great misfortune to those who may dissent. Examples of this include Lutheran Protestants killing thousands of Anabaptists in Germany because of differing views on baptism, Saudi Arabia coercing citizens to follow Islam, or the Soviet Union’s aim to extinguish religious belief that was at odds with the state religion. Where religious liberty is absent, serious spiritual and bodily danger to mankind is present.

If the violent history of state established religion is not enough to convince you of our need for religious liberty, please consider these thoughts on why established religion is unsuitable and unjust:

  1. It leads to ignorance among the public or intense violence/persecution against dissenters.
  2. It causes people to flee, taking their talent and cultural influence with them.
  3. The state becomes a god/religion
  4. It prevents persuasion and debate from occurring.
  5. It deters moral and convictional leaders from emerging because of their unwillingness to violate their conscience. Whereas corrupt individuals with no sincere convictions willing to say/ believe anything to obtain power are attracted.
  6. It strips humans of their dignity.

The list of woes associated with state established religion could continue but I believe that this brief outline should suffice for the sake of this article.

Is there a limit to religious liberty?

When advocating for religious liberty, it is important to distinguish between religious freedom and moral relativism(the idea you can do whatever you want). No rights listed in the Bill of Rights are absolute and the same truth applies to religious freedom. If the government has a compelling interest in the matter (does the religious claim cause harm to the common good), the state can restrict the religious liberty claim in the least obstructive means possible. Helpful SCOTUS decisions on this matter are Reynolds v. United States(1878), Sherbert v. Verner (1963), and United States v. Lee (1982). Simplified, if your religious belief/practice causes sincere harm to the common good (e.g. human sacrifice, not paying Social Security), then the state can restrict such a practice.

Where do we go from here?

I predict that religious liberty will continue to be a controversial subject, especially as we consider topics associated with Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) laws. My hope is that all individuals, regardless of beliefs, will understand the beauty and necessity of religious freedom. It is important to understand that majority and minority world views change which is why all people possessing all beliefs must advocate with grand fervor that religious liberty belongs to all, not just one group. To be afraid of competing ideas is to lack faith in your own convictions. We must encourage a society that pleas with and persuades others to explore truth, not coerce individuals to believe what the majority or minority believes, for this would lead to insincere faith. The answer to our woes in today’s polarized and sensitive environment is not to abandon religious freedom but to encourage it boldly for all. Remember, religious liberty for me and not for thee is not religious liberty all.

Sources:

The Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion in Revolutionary America: A History in Documents by Matthew L. Harris and Thomas S. Kidd

Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination by John Corvino, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sherif

First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty by Jason G. Duesing, Thomas White, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III

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