For Americans, religious liberty is one of our country’s founding values, enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution. Our Declaration of Independence sets forth that all humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Many of the first European settlers of this continent came in the hopes of such freedom, as they escaped religious persecution from state churches. This atmosphere of freedom eventually gave way to the first Great Awakening and the birth of the evangelical tradition.
Today, many evangelicals continue to champion the value of religious liberty for all. However, there have been some in recent times who have questioned its virtue. The rise of Christian nationalism has given way to the idea that America should offer religious liberty only to those whose religion is deemed correct.
For example, John MacArthur has been making waves for referring to religious liberty as “nonsense.”
“I don’t even support religious freedom,” MacArthur said. “Religious freedom is what sends people to hell. To say I support religious freedom is to say I support idolatry. It’s to say I support lies, I support hell, I support the kingdom of darkness.”
“No Christian with half a brain would say, ‘We support religious freedom.’ We support the truth,” MacArthur continued. “We’re not going to lobby for freedom of religion. What kind of nonsense is that? We are in the world to expose all those lies as lies.”
MacArthur’s words have raised alarm bells for many, though some agree with him. Why should Christians protect religious liberty for religions that we find to be so obviously false, such as Mormonism, Buddhism, or Islam? Isn’t allowing these religions to persist unhindered bad for the country?
While I agree that the prospect of every American coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ would be a miracle of biblical proportions that would benefit the world in ways we can’t even imagine, restricting religious liberty isn’t the way to get there.
Here are three compelling reasons why Christians should support religious liberty for everybody, including non-Christians.
1. Christians Are Called to Protect the Dignity of Everyone, Including Those We Disagree With.
From the first pages of Scripture, we see the ethic of religious liberty at play. When God created Adam and Eve in his image, he gave them freedom of choice. He clearly explained to them what would lead to their flourishing and communion with him, as well as what would lead to separation and death.
Unfortunately for us, they didn’t choose wisely. Nevertheless, God dignified them and honored their choice.
After that time, it would make sense if God decided to switch gears and force humans to follow his will, whether they chose to or not. Yet, while God was certainly more forceful with some of his chosen leaders than he was with others (for example, Moses), his posture toward humanity has nevertheless always been to dignify humanity with a choice, extending them an invitation into the life that he always intended for them.
When Jesus came onto the scene, he continued in this posture, inviting his followers to “come and see” (John 1:39). After Jesus delivered a difficult teaching to a clamoring crowd of people, many decided to stop following him. Even in that moment, Jesus turned to his twelve apostles and seemed to let them off the hook too, asking, “Are you going to leave me too?” (John 6:67)
Thankfully, both for them and for us, they decided to stay.
If we force our Christian faith on others through coercion and governmental suppression, we deny the dignity of other people created in the image of God in a way that God himself has never done. His posture is invitation, not coercion. So should ours be.If we force our Christian faith on others through coercion and governmental suppression, we deny the dignity of other people created in the image of God in a way that God himself has never done. Click To Tweet
2. Forced Religion Always Results in a Distortion of the Faith.
Christianity always seems to be at its worst whenever it has the most political and military power. And that’s because earthly power is not befitting to the message that we preach. We preach a crucified Messiah, eternally powerful and authoritative, yet meek and sacrificial to the point of death on a Cross. Our power is in his resurrection, not in political clout.
Nevertheless, throughout history, Christians have fallen prey to the assumption that if only Christendom became a political and military powerhouse, we would finally have the means and infrastructure to reshape the world as God intended it. Those assumptions may have been pure, but they have always been proven false.
Whether it was the bloodshed of military conquest brought on by the Crusades, the genocide of indigenous peoples in North America through forced internment in Missions, or the political consolidation of the Religious Right in America, we have always lost the message and the mission in the process. Always.
And that’s because, in many ways, the means is the message.
Our message is that if we fully surrender in humility to Jesus, we will experience an abundance of life, from now until eternity. Whenever we attempt to convey that message by means that are incongruent with it, we lose the message itself. Whenever we traverse outside the posture of Jesus, we depart from Jesus himself.
The posture of the Christian toward the unbelieving world is one of humble invitation. In the face of persecution, slander, and derision, we do not respond in kind. We never force our will upon others, but invite them to see that God’s will for their life is infinitely better.
We can’t dominate and invite at the same time.In many ways, the means is the message. Click To Tweet
3. Forfeiting Religious Liberty for Some Will Inevitably Lead to Forfeiting It for Ourselves.
Speaking on a practical level, working to ensure religious liberty for all also ensures that Christians will always be able to operate in accordance with their consciences. If Christians move to consolidate power and quell the religious traditions we believe are errant, it is only a matter of time before power changes hands and we find ourselves being suppressed.
While the church has always flourished when it is on the margins or under persecution, prudence would suggest that we shouldn’t place unnecessary obstacles in our way.
Furthermore, even if Christendom remains in the seat of power, it may itself become oppressive. After all, the longer Christianity has political and military power, the more it begins to distort itself. And when reformation must come, those who call the church to repentance will inevitably do so in the face of military might cloaked in religious symbolism.
With religious liberty protected, followers of Jesus are free to reform, reimagine, and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit can move mightily even when the guns of government are pointed at us, the work of calling people to biblical faithfulness entails enough hardship in itself to successfully refine our faith.
If Christians successfully move to restrict the construction of mosques or temples in order to keep our neighborhoods “religiously pure,” followers of Jesus will inevitably likewise suffer at the hands of others who are seeking to do the same. When power is the arbiter of truth, the faithful will always suffer.When power is the arbiter of truth, the faithful will always suffer. Click To Tweet
Religious Liberty is a Human Right.
Religious liberty isn’t just an American value. It is a human right. And whether or not you question the Christian orthodoxy of the founding fathers, they nevertheless affirmed, fought for, and enshrined in our Constitution a principle that is fundamental not only to Americans but to humanity writ large.
It is not the role of the government to enforce religious practice, even if we believe the religious tradition from which those practices spring is the correct one.
Instead, we invite. And we trust the God who is mighty to move and turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.