Religious Liberty Is Threatened by Democrats and Republicans
Religious liberty is attacked from both the right and the left, from Democrats and Republicans. From the Democratic side, look no further than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s impassioned speech on February 27, 2020, during a House Oversight Committee hearing on “The Administration’s Religious Liberty Assault on LGBTQ Rights.”Invoking her own Catholic faith in support of “LGBTQ Rights,” she railed against conservative Christians, saying, “…the only time religious freedom is invoked is in the name of bigotry and discrimination.” She believes that religious liberty is a weapon used to harm vulnerable people.
But AOC isn’t alone. Pastor and bestselling author John MacArthur, who once said Christians couldn’t vote for a Democrat in good conscience (but they can vote Republican, I guess?), recently attacked religious liberty during a sermon:
“Now I told you last week that I do not believe as a Christian that I can support strongly freedom of religion, because that would be to violate the first commandment, right? ‘Have no other gods.’ You say, ‘Well, doesn’t the church need freedom of religion to move forward?’ No. In no way does any political law aid or hinder the church of Jesus Christ. We are a separate kingdom. Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world My servants would fight.’”
Many found MacArthur’s comments confusing, including religious liberty scholars Luke Goodrich and Andrew Walker. But, according to the Christian Post, in MacArthur’s State of the Church message he seemed to double down:
“I told our congregation a few weeks ago that I could never really concern myself with religious freedom. I wouldn’t fight for religious freedom because I won’t fight for idolatry. Why would I fight for the devil to have as many false religions as possible and all of them to be available to everyone?” he asked.
5 Things You Need to Know About Religious Liberty
Religious liberty is threatened by people from every political tribe. Here’s what you need to know about our most fundamental freedom.1. Religious liberty is our first freedom. It declares that the state doesn’t have ultimate authority over an individual’s conscience. Without religious liberty, rights become dependent on the state instead of recognized by the state. According to our founding documents, the United States government doesn’t grant us religious liberty but recognizes and affirms that human beings have been “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Compare this to places and times where religious liberty was not understood as an inalienable right. Totalitarian regimes — from ancient Persia to today’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — prohibit religious liberty because it contradicts their claim that the state has ultimate power and threatens their ideological domination. Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den for praying to God instead of King Darius. The CCP confiscates property, refuses work, and limits the education of Christians who worship in non-state-sanctioned churches.2. Religious liberty is for everyone or no one. There’s both a practical and theological argument behind this assertion. The practical argument is that no proponent of religious liberty should want the government involved in theological disputes. Government shouldn’t play a role in favoring or disfavoring particular religious beliefs, because a government that can restrict the freedom of a Muslim or Jew can restrict the freedom of a Christian.
The theological argument is rooted in Genesis 1, where all human beings are created in God’s image. Every image bearer is responsible to freely worship the true God. This means no state may justly bar a human’s right to worship. Conversely, as Genesis 3-11 shows, God never coerces someone into worshipping him. If God does not exercise this power, why should the state? This is why Becket’s mission statement is to “defend the free exercise of all faiths, from Anglican to Zoroastrian.” It’s why three Southern Baptist seminary professors who co-authored a book on religious liberty supported a Mosque being built in Bernards Township, New Jersey.
3. Religious liberty is taught by Jesus. The Jewish religious leaders tried to trap Jesus by asking him if they should pay a tax on subjugated people. Answering yes would put him on the wrong side of the Jewish people, while answering no would put him on the wrong side of Rome. After asking whose image was on a coin, Jesus said, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Jesus limits the authority and reach of the state. Obey Caesar in the realm where he has authority but recognize that his authority has limits. Some things belong only to God.4. Be aware of those who want to narrow religious liberty. The second half of the First Amendment — the “free exercise” clause — means that freedom of religion can’t be restricted to freedom of worship. And yet that’s exactly what many want to do.
Consider Frank Bruni in the New York Times: “And I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes and hearts.”
Christians rightly disagree. What does it mean to recognize Jesus as Lord on Sunday but not throughout the week, in the church but not the community? Worship is not just something that happens on Sunday morning. Worship is all of life. The First Amendment establishes everyone’s right to live their lives by the dictates of their faith.5. Are there limits to religious liberty? If someone claims that God wants them to commit a crime, are they protected by freedom of religion? Can a person do whatever they want in the name of religion? This is one of the questions Luke Goodrich answers in his excellent book, Free to Believe.
“Every right has limits. The right of free speech, for example, doesn’t mean businesses can deceive customers with false advertising. The right to bear arms doesn’t mean citizens can bring guns onto airplanes. And the right of religious freedom doesn’t mean parents can engage in child sacrifice.”
Religious liberty must be balanced with other competing rights. When rights collide, the courts end up being the arbiter. But as Paul points out in Romans 12-13, Christian conduct — which is characterized by sacrificial love of neighbors — should never pose a threat to a justly ordered society.
Want to hear where the next threats to religious liberty are likely to come from? Luke Goodrich says that while those threats are real, religious liberty is currently on a 15-case winning streak before the Supreme Court. Don’t miss our recent podcast episode with Luke Goodrich, VP and senior counsel of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Posted by Keith Simon